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17.11.2016 We are officially living in a “post-truth” era. What does it mean for public relations?

 

A week ago, we awoke to news that a bankrupt reality television star who has never held public office had become President of the United States of America. 

A man accused of inappropriate sexual conduct or assault by over a dozen women, and the first presidential candidate in recent history to refuse to release his tax returns, is now President-elect Trump.

It’s widely believed that the policies he sold himself with are completely unenforceable. There will be no Mexican-funded wall, no ban on Muslims travelling to the US. No Hillary Clinton in her own Orange is the New Black-style reality show. But it matters little. Welcome to the post-truth world.

Post-truth is now an official “thing” – in fact, Oxford Dictionaries today declared it as its international word of the year. Defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year.

On hearing this news, I was struck by a sense of deep sadness (that’ll teach me to turn The Today Programme on first thing in the morning; I think I might replace it with disco records for the foreseeable future. Don’t you just hanker for a more innocent time, pre-Brexit and Trump, when the ‘crying tears of joy emoji’ nabbed the word-of-the-year crown? Anyway. I digress).

Beyond despairing at what this most unpredictable of times means for us, as a society, I can’t help but wonder what it means for public relations – the profession I’ve spent 13 of my years in.

I texted a friend, who replied:

“You can’t actually have post-truth. It makes no sense. I mean, “truth” can be debated. As a thing. But assuming certain things are true, then you can either be telling the truth or not. You can be mistaken (but mean well). Or you can be lying.”

He’s right, of course. But have post-truth we do. And one thing is certain; it’s a depressing time for anybody who believes that decisions should be based on evidence, and that facts still matter. 

For all our deluded belief in progress, for all the potential that technology presents in term of democracy and access to information, what’s happening in reality is that we are increasingly organising ourselves into silos. We are finding the media channels and social media communities that reinforce our own ‘truths’ and surrounding ourselves with them. We choose to live in echo chambers.

Today’s news that fake election stories received more attention than real stories on Facebook during the final months of the US presidential campaign is depressingly unsurprising. 

Elsewhere in social media, Twitter’s new mute button – despite being hailed as a solution to trolling – could potentially reinforce the echo chamber mentality. Twitter now lets us compile lists of words and phrases we don’t want to see in our timelines, a move that came in response to the rise of a prominent anti-semitic movement on the network during the US election.

But will the click of a mute button make those thoughts and beliefs disappear? The anti-[INSERT MINORITY] trolls will still exist, with their reprehensible beliefs. Simply choosing to block them out is all very Black Mirror. And while it might make for temporary relief from the badness out there on an individual level (and goodness knows there’s plenty of it), it doesn’t encourage an understanding of the other side’s view. 

This brilliant Washington Post article, about the conversion of a notable white supremacist, shows how critical it is to understand your ‘enemy’ if you stand any chance of changing their mind. In a new world of digital ‘shushing’, what hope do we have of winning hearts and minds? By ignoring them, do we stop people spreading hate?

Or do we simply ignore their “truths” while holding on more vehemently to our own?

These are all big questions – all central to how long this ‘post-truth era’ will last, and how we tackle it. Because tackle it we should.

I’m sad to say that public relations has had a part to play in creating this mess. While the industry has taken positive steps to embrace transparency and remove the shadow cast by our spin-doctor ancestors, we can’t pretend we’re not part of the problem.

In his recent essay titled Post Truth, Post Trust, Post PR: The crisis of trust is a crisis of leadership, Robert Phillips, former EMEA CEO of Edelman argues that in the aftershock of the 2008 financial crisis, the institutions at fault failed to change. In a new climate of public opinion that demanded more fairness, ethics and better leadership, organisations instead opted to use clever messaging to paper over the cracks.

He said:

“Clever communications was being used to prop-up bad leadership in business and politics – thereby fuelling the crisis of leadership and, in turn, the crisis of trust. We thought we could spin our way out of everything, even if that spin was only lightly or innocently applied.”

There’s little wonder that we live in a time of unprecedented mistrust in big institutions and power. Politicians, rather than owning up to their role in economic decline (whether that be poor oversight of financial institutions or failure to adapt to the challenges presented by globalisation) have instead chosen classic diversion tactics. The powerful evade responsibility by distracting us with an ever-revolving carousel of fall guys. Mexican rapists. Syrian terrorists. Swarms of immigrants.

What we’ve learned from the rise of Trump, Farage et al is that facts are more disposable than ever before. We have short attention spans, and little time to check facts. The proliferation of ‘news’ outlets designed to attract clickbait with little journalism or ethics in their business models has reinforced this. We’re told that if it FEELS true, then you should believe it. People will opt for the candidate who “tells it like it is”. Even if what they’re telling us is ugly, or morally wrong.

For PR professionals, we’ve learned that emotion and nostalgia are more powerful tools than ever before. Simple messages combined with metronome-like repetition gets results. If we repeat something often enough over a long period of time, people will believe it. This is the post-truth world we helped to create.

This leaves the PR industry at a crossroads. We can, of course, just go with it. We could be given bigger carte blanche to stretch the truth than ever before, and that would be the easy, profitable route.

But at the other extreme, Edelman’s Robert Phillips proposes a radical post-Public Relations model of leadership:

“The corporation of the future should look less like a traditional hierarchy and more like a social movement, within which the CEO needs to think and behave like a social activist… This means being citizen-centric and society-first, re-setting the consumption fetish of the late 20th and early 21st century. The activist Public Leader negotiates and enables – and does not impose. Aristotelian values of Truth, Wisdom, Justice and, above all, Courage prevail.

“I have long argued for the ascendancy of profit optimisation over profit maximisation and for a longer-term focus on purpose and not just profit – challenging Milton Friedman and his Thatcher/ Reagan disciples, where the only responsibility of business is to maximise profit for a small group of shareholders. We need to mutualise more. Achieving this also demands activist business leadership.”

In a year of Brexit and Trump, his vision may appear naively idealistic. And I don’t foresee a rush to pick up his ideological baton. But does it have to end here? I – and many others in the industry and beyond – sincerely hope it doesn’t.

We know that people turned to Trump and Farage partly as a protest against decades of empty promises from politicians. But they’ll inevitably be found lacking soon enough. Time will betray them for what they are. And when these most hateful of emperors are finally revealed to be wearing nothing, then we will have truly hit rock bottom (as hard as it feels to imagine sinking even further).

Perhaps only then will Phillips’ model look less radical – and more like a universal truth. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com