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Post-Truth and PR: lessons for communications

2016: the year when feelings outflanked the facts. When Oxford Dictionaries named post-truth the Word of the Year, many see the vote to leave the EU here in the UK and Donald Trump’s election in the US as events that prove we’ve moved into a post-truth era, where facts no longer matter. Where we’re now persuaded more by emotion than logic.

As noted in Private Eye, the term post-truth has some history. Back in 2005, political commentator Peter Oborne, wrote in The Rise of Political Lying that “Britain now lives in a post-truth political environment”. But, despite this early warning, post-truth has gained momentum.

Since 2005, we’ve experienced a succession of scandals from the global financial crash in 2008 to the MPs expenses in 2009 and phone hacking in 2011 to more recent allegations of police corruption. As a result, we feel our faith in finance, politics, the media and those who are meant to keep us safe has been betrayed. The public no longer trusts these institutions and what their experts have to say.

While some may see this as a largely political issue the implications for corporate communications are clear. First, your audiences – whomever they may be – are likely to be more sceptical of you and your messages and can be more difficult to convince of your argument. Second, thanks to the accessibility of information and the blurring of boundaries between how we receive our information, consumers, employees, suppliers and investors often all absorb the same messages about your business, whether you like it or not.

But how should companies pursue communications in an era where there’s been a wide scale erosion of trust, facts are maligned and post-truth seemingly reigns? Successful communications campaigns start with demonstrable insight. This should involve assessing the market, your competitors and, most importantly, your target audience. Understanding your audience’s motivations, attitudes and lifestyle choices as well as their media preferences and online behaviours will enable you to understand their perspective, build messaging and content that better resonates and target the channels with which they engage – delivering greater impact.

Total transparency about who you are and what you do is fast becoming the accepted norm for building a trusted following. Impropriety impacts confidence. What’s more, messaging needs to be stable and lasting. Attention-grabbing campaigns must always be approached through a long-term lens and enhanced and reflected in corporate culture.

While some may question Donald Trump’s motives and his politics, he’s shown a remarkable ability to own and frame the debate by crafting a more persuasive story. Even during the early primaries, his shock and awe approach to campaigning generated huge amounts of free media and kept the conversation focused on what he wanted to talk about. While more mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush struggled to make an impact, ‘The Donald’ won journalists’ attention and his poll numbers steadily improved. Importantly, he appealed to his audience on an emotional level as well as a rational one. Trump continues to use this approach for his benefit – such as with his criticism of Meryl Streep, which John Cassidy, the New Yorker journalist, succinctly summarised on Twitter.

Although we’re moving into a tougher time for corporate communications, it’s never been more important for companies to focus on first principles to successfully traverse the pitfalls of the post-truth environment.

James in our Corporate and Business Comms team

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