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Post-truth era

Post-Truth era: weaponising numbers!

Post-Truth era communications hold a particular challenge for companies whose marketing is based on some form of science or data. How should companies communicate in the Post-Truth era, particularly when it comes to the use of numbers?

For a re-cap of how Lindsay and I view ‘Post-Truth’ please see our previous posts here and here.

Post-Truth Era communications: case study

Post-truth era

As a case study, let’s look at the most famous Post-Truth number; the £350 million a week that the Vote Leave campaign continued to claim the UK sends to Brussels even after it was debunked as ‘misleading’ by the UK Statistics Authority. 

Here are some lessons for communicators.

Post-Truth numbers are not about factual accuracy

It didn’t matter and it didn’t hurt the Leave Campaign that the £350mn figure wasn’t true. By keeping it out there, the campaign intended to create confusion and crowd out Remain messages and arguments. Like its larger cousin (fully fledged fake news articles), the £350mn figure is part of a broad family of misinformation that is designed to muddy the waters. The Russians even have a military term for it- maskirovka.

Post-Truth numbers are about forcing opponents onto the defensive

In his 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that conservatives are much better at winning arguments than liberals because they use powerful language to frame their ideas (e.g. ‘tax is theft’) and then force their opponents to argue on that territory (as opposed to the ‘tax is investment’ argument ). The £350mn is the numerical equivalent of a linguistic frame. It forced the Remain campaign to come out and argue that the number wasn’t true, which kept the conversation going and also kept the idea that it might be alive in people’s heads.

Post-Truth numbers link to a powerful organising story

The £350mn figure evoked powerful images associated with the deeply embedded Eurosceptic tropes of waste and a lack of financial control. Throw in the NHS (the ultimate British identity meme*) and the figure goes from being an example of hard data to an expression of the powerful and simple story.

Post-Truth Era communications

Paul Stephenson was Communications Director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. 

All three of these ideas are on the record in a recent article by Paul Stephenson, the Communications Director for Vote Leave:

“Of course, our campaign claim of the now infamous £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU was not completely accurate … The Remain campaign couldn’t stand it. They constantly tried to rubbish these official statistics and accused us of ‘lying.’ These attacks were entirely counterproductive for them; it kept the debate focused on an area where we were strong: just how many hundreds of millions of pounds the U.K. gives the EU every week.”

So, the question still remains as to whether companies should engage in these kinds of tactics.

And quite simply the answer is no.

Donald Trump isn’t even in office and Brexit hasn’t yet happened, so no one knows what, if any, price will be paid by the members of the public who did believe what they were saying.  But organisations that have shareholders and/or regulatory constraints will almost certainly get clobbered for putting bad information into the public domain.

Post-Truth era communications: a commercial case study

Equally damaging is withholding information that could contradict the powerful story which a company uses to justify its ‘social licence’. Like many others, I have been gripped by the downfall of Theranos, the ‘revolutionary’ US blood testing company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, a 19 year old Stanford dropout who managed to convince the stalwarts of Corporate America (including Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger) to either invest or be on her board. Worth an estimated $9bn by the age of 32, Holmes’ built the notoriously secretive company’s brand on an emotion-drenched-story which lacked the transparent data to support it. The image was shattered when the Wall Street Journal started digging around for numbers and discovered that the supposedly ground breaking blood testing technology was in fact deeply flawed.

Companies are right to see storytelling and emotion/issue based campaigning as a way of engaging the public around the issues they care about. And planting memes and tropes* over a period of years can be incredibly helpful for shaping public opinion around core images and ideas (particularly if supported by a willing media).

But when it comes to hard numbers they should never weaponise them. Handled badly they can go off on in the wrong hands and cause injury, not just to the public but also to the user.

For the record here are a couple of definitions:

*A meme is an element of culture (it can be a video, an institution, or a type of behaviour) that is shared, copied or mimicked by lots of people.

A trope is a figure of speech, a metaphor and sometimes a cliché. It’s a shorthand for something the audience will instantly recognise. It has a slightly different meaning in politics, literature and TV drama.

As those of you that read this blog regularly will know, the Media Coach team don’t just teach people where to look and what to wear on TV. We offer a broad range of bespoke media and presentation training workshops and message building sessions – all run by  experienced communications professionals. If you need help building or refining messages just give us a call. 

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

The Post Truth era: we all recognise the symptoms around us. But the challenge facing professional communicators is how to build real trust in the Post Truth era?

Lindsay has already written about the EU Referendum and the apparent disregard for facts and expert opinion that was paraded around with something bordering on glee by the Vote Leave campaign. It’s an approach we are seeing replicated by Donald Trump in the US Presidential elections and also by populists both in Europe and further afield (the new President of the Philippines being an example of this).

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Donald Trump has consistently ignored or distorted facts in his Presidential campaign bid

The premise, according to despairing commentators, is that we are at a point where the ‘public’ now trust those who speak in authentic plain language (usually this means hyperbolic soundbites), appeal to emotion and ‘feel’ rather than think their way to a decision.  Chuck in a bit of neuroscience, the self-reinforcing effect of social media on polarised communities and the result is that the inevitable losers are facts, experts and ‘truth’ (whatever that is).

While this is clearly a complex issue, as a media trainer, whose stock trade is soundbites, facts and stories, I think there is a false dichotomy between the facts-versus-emotion argument.  Emotion is nothing new when it comes to trust and decision making (whether it’s in politics or picking one shampoo brand over another).

Post Truth era

The Political Brain by Drew Westen

In his 2007 book, The Political Brain, the academic Drew Westen hammered this point almost to excess but it’s still a key point that people often make decisions based on their ‘gut’ and that you can’t fight gut with reason alone.

Post Truth era:  persuasive communicators use facts and emotion

To be a persuasive communicator you genuinely need to combine hard (rational, fact based) data and soft evidence (examples or stories) – into a schema or overarching story that makes sense and appeals to people at a concrete level.  The FT columnist and economist Tim Harford gave a wonderful illustration of this when he wrote about Florence Nightingale. It was the British nurse who first seemed to understand that ‘the dryer the better’ approach that was being applied to health statistics in the 19th Century wasn’t going to do the trick when it came to persuading hospital managers to change embedded habits and improve hygiene standards in hospitals. This led to Nightingale producing her famous Rose Diagram.

Post Truth era

Florence Nightingale’s Rose Diagram

As Harford writes:

‘What makes Nightingale’s story so striking is that she was able to see that statistics could be tools and weapons at the same time. She educated herself using the data, before giving it the makeover it required to convince others.’

So the overall story matters. And it is a convenient but simplistic fiction for those who lose campaigns or get their overall narrative wrong to argue that emotion and hyperbole have trumped reason.

Post Truth era: trust is not rational

Now of course, none of these ‘tools of persuasion’ will work if they fall on deaf or unwilling ears.  And this sums up the problem for me.  Trust is not something that is generated rationally or from a top down ‘trust me/trust the experts’ approach. In the digital age, those who feel that that they have been consistently overlooked or ignored will not be inclined to accept statistics from those who they feel are simply treating trust as a transactional tool to generate some kind of behaviour change (vote for me, buy my computer etc).

So what’s the answer? I don’t claim to have it. But I do think proper listening would be a good starting point. And that’s where I feel our soundbite, debating style, televised model of communication is in trouble.  Most of our traditional leaders are spectacularly bad at listening, partly because of reasons of time and partly because listening often means letting people vent at you, which doesn’t look great on YouTube.

How we reorganise public communication so that it is a proper exchange is something that will take time and work. But we are currently experiencing blowback from people who feel that they have been shut out or side-lined for too long.

And sadly, this has led to the axiom that ‘if I hate you, then your facts are wrong’.

 

Brexit referendum: reflections on the campaign

The Brexit referendum campaign will be studied for decades to come for what it tells us about political campaigning in the social media age. There are so many themes and lessons worth exploring from the Brexit referendum that it is a bit overwhelming. The establishment versus the radicals, the young versus the old, the use of language, the missuses of facts and numbers, the lack of positive vision from either side…I could go on. The one that rises to the top today for me is a phenomenon that has been dubbed the ‘post-truth era.

Brexit referendum: post-truth era

In many ways I am a spin-doctor. I help people make clear, understandable, convincing arguments. And I believe in a complicated world, when often the experts in corporations and organisations have lost the ability to speak in plain English, mine is a useful role. But one of the absolute tenets is ‘don’t lie’. (Another is, by the way, don’t personally attack your opponents, stick to the argument.)

What I saw in the referendum was one side putting time and money and thought into clear reasoned honest arguments and the other dismissing every reasoned argument with a flourish. Nick Cohen in the Guardian wrote this weekend a scathing piece about the attitude to truth of the two ex-journalists who led the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. I have in the past been impressed with Boris Johnson as a communicator but my admiration waned after he was called before the Treasury select committee in March this year and so much of what he had said during the Brexit campaign was revealed as half-truths by the ‘dry as dust’ chairman Andrew Tyrie.

Brexit referendum: the lies

One lie that stands at the centre of the Brexit campaign was that £350m a week was being sent to the EU. It was disproved repeatedly in articles like this one but it was still being used right up to the end.

The bigger lie, the one that will define the next few years in British politics, is the one about immigration. The Brexit campaign has been fuelled by the public’s desire to ‘take back control of our borders’ and this Newsnight interview with MEP Daniel Hannan shows just how unlikely the ‘leave’ voting public are to get what they think they voted for.

 

The Remain side have been accused of lying too, particularly about their warnings of the economic consequences of ‘what could happen’. I did not agree with everything they said but I can’t find one outright lie that I can point to.

However, perhaps the most sinister exchange of the whole campaign came in a Michael Gove interview with Faisal Islam on Sky News. It was put to Gove that “the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, IMF, the CBI, five former NATO secretary generals and the chief executive of the NHS” were all against Britain’s exit. The response was: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”.

Encouraged by such talk, we now have a large proportion of the population who feel they are lied to all the time and are therefore disinclined to believe anything the establishment or mainstream politicians tell them.

Add to this the power of social media where any piece of information that strikes a chord will be repeated and recycled. To quote Jim Murphy in the New Statesman last year ‘in these emotion-fuelled insurgencies, peer-to-peer social media is increasingly the broadcaster of choice’.

And this is the nightmare vision of the post-truth era – outlined in a 2004 book by Ralph Keyes: The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. The summary states: ‘post truthfulness builds a fragile social edifice based on wariness, it erodes the foundation of trust that underlies any healthy civilization.’ Keyes wrote in 2004 ‘We are perilously close to the point’. I think we can safely say in the UK, in 2016, that point arrived.