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?
Post-truth era communications: case study
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.
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.