PR in the Post-Truth Era

The London Mayor Boris Johnson delivering his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Tuesday October 4, 2011. Photo By Andrew Parsons/Parsons Media

Last week I mused about how the communications industry might look if it adopted modern-day political campaign techniques. It was more in jest than in earnest, but on reflection the communications industry has some important choices to make.

In 2008 Martin Thomas and I published Crowd Surfing, in which we made the case that organisations and brands needed to learn how to better harness the ‘energy, ideas and enthusiasm’ of empowered consumers. Happily, much of it is still relevant if all a bit pre-Snapchat, VR and Pokémon Go.

We spoke with people like Sebastien Coe and Jeff Jarvis who had personally experienced how a crowd can quickly gather, turn nasty and ‘bring down a castle’. And we spent some time diagnosing how to prevent that or re-build afterwards… all good common-sense stuff.

But one assumption that drove us and many other writers and thinkers of that time was that eventually facts, honestly presented and openly debated would (by and large) win the day. Dell’s journey from blogosphere pariah to rehabilitation and ultimately crowd favourite was our classic example. The storm around the London 2012 Olympic logo launch which was faced down and then passed as quickly as it blew up was another. It was all very Cluetrain Manifesto, but right now it seems as dated and naïve as a hippy at a dance party.

Why?

  •  Politician Michael Gove claimed in his Brexit campaign that ‘people had had enough of experts’ and recently Newt Gingrich said that what people felt was more important than facts in political debate and even in policy making. Gove and Gingrich are seasoned political leaders even if Trump, Johnson and Farage are more used to playing fast and loose.
  • For nearly two years now, Facebook’s algorithm has served us up content to which we are predisposed. Most of us have friends that are mostly like us in any case, but even within that small personal universe, the increasingly dominant news feed is selecting narrower and more similar content. Facebook learns what we like and gives us more of it. More and more we see only one side of any argument.
  • If we then make the effort to search a subject, Google’s algorithm increasingly rewards socially successful content. See above for how balanced that is.
  • Compared to 2008, short-form, visual and emotional content has taken over and that means we all tend to become ‘tabloid’ and less contextual in how we communicate and there are a lot more of us doing that in real time now thanks to mobile. Real-time is no ally of good judgement.

The risk for the PR industry in all this is that we fall back to being purely advocates rather than facilitating understanding. Again, sorry if that sounds naïve, but in 2008 it seemed clear that we were in a world where companies and brands were ultimately rewarded for openness, transparency and fact-based arguments.  Engage in that way and you were rewarded with trust, or at the very least some understanding. In that world our path was clear.

It’s not so clear now, where facts are openly discounted and context seems dead.

For example, the Vote Leave Campaign in the recent UK referendum and EU membership has just been awarded Campaign of the Month by PRWeek even though the publication admits that ‘Yes, some Brexit campaign tactics particularly the tone on immigration, the now infamous ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ claim – were questionable’. In fact there was no question… that claim was totally untrue.

So if PRWeek can get it so wrong and the two most high-profile and successful political campaigns of the day seem to have profited by discarding truth, then what chance does the hard-pressed PR operative have of striking the right balance?

Let’s be careful out there.

David Brain

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