A client – early 40s, working for an international tech-based company – recently asked me what doing business in the ‘post-truth’ era means for corporate communicators. With a kaleidoscope of Brexit referendum and Trump victory analyses churning around my brain, I came up with a rather flippant one-liner: “We’re not post-truth – we’re post-PR”.
Flippancy aside, I was referring to the traditional/cynical view of PR – spin-doctoring, smoke-and-mirroring, snake oil selling, self-seeking hype based on unfounded claims. And as I’ve thought and talked to colleagues about it, I believe we are now in an era where the role of PR is more than ever about defining and telling the truth as powerfully as possible.
I’ve always favoured the definition of PR’s end product as “what other people say and believe about you, your product or organisation.” Much of the ’post-truth’ analysis of the Brexit debate and Trump victory focuses on the impact of emotion-fueled claims and uncorroborated statements hitting Twitter feeds and media headlines, shaping the news cycle and influencing behaviour in the voting booth.
So what’s new?
Claims powered by emotion rather than fact have been the red meat that corporate communicators have dined on for decades. Folklore and literature ranging from the Emperor’s new clothes to George Orwell’s 1984 live in our imaginations as examples of the rich and powerful believing that claim equals reality…if I say it, it’s true.
So why is ‘post-truth’ slipping effortlessly into the modern vernacular now? Like all beguiling phrases, it captures something in the atmosphere of radical change and shifting norms, and seems to ring true. But when you unpack it, what does it mean for corporate communicators?
It’s all about credibility – the credibility of the organisation, the industry, the top management and the spokesperson. Think Nigel Farage and the miscellaneous band of pro-Brexit figures he gathered together against the UK government determined ‘Remain’ policy. Think Donald Trump being seen at the start of his presidential campaign as a sort of vaudeville comedy turn.
During the course of their campaigns, they built ‘constituencies of credibility’ with broad swathes of voters by ignoring traditional electoral demographic-driven messaging and using assertive emotional claims, statements and declarations. Their credibility came from gut instinct connections confirming negative sentiments…”this is wrong…this is bad…this needs to be stopped…”
By capturing aggrieved ‘heart’ before policy ‘head’, they fashioned new-look constituencies that bridged across conventional demographic silos.
Are there lessons to be learned? Do corporate communicators need to do anything differently in the ‘post-truth’ era? These are my five ‘post-truth’ pointers:
1. Think afresh about your organisation’s ‘constituencies of credibility’. Who are the influencer groups and communities? Understand what their levels of engagement/loyalty/trust really mean. Are they earned because of your fantastic business and products, or are they default because you have a monopoly market position? Are they connected by positive experience of your business or brand, or by negative sentiment?
2. Make your messaging ’context-led’. Understand the gap, need, opportunity or frustration that makes your message relevant to a particular audience or constituency, and make that contextual connection the headline and framework for your messaging.
3. Amplify your proof points. Redouble your organisation’s efforts to dig out the objective examples, experience, data and statistics that underpin your claims and statements, and be smart about the way you weave them into your corporate narrative.
4. Gather your third-party allies. Credible independent voices who understand your organisation and its operating model, processes and culture are increasingly important to support, endorse and validate your business, and provide additional points of engagement and communication networks. It’s then not just one organisation’s point of view, but a collective perspective.
5. Visualise your messaging. One of the great benefits of visual communication techniques such as video, photography and infographs is that they immediately connect emotionally as well as delivering rational information. With this dual impact, they are essential weapons in the corporate communicator’s ‘post-truth’ armoury, and should be the first rather than thought when planning an effective communication strategy.
These are not a new prescription, but a reinforcement of the essentials of good communication practice. The seismic political and social changes reflected in the Brexit-Trump outcomes will continue to ripple for years, but well-planned and executed corporate PR is the most effective and flexible tool at a company’s side – not post-truth, but turbo-truth!