Our scepticism of specialists and experts has begun to pollute a much bigger ecology of knowledge and practice in society – consuming the areas of media, politics, science and business. How can organisations respond?
We have become accustomed to Post-Truth as an idea. Used to describe the collapse of belief in rational discourse and facts as the solution to debating issues in public life, it is concurrent to the rise of emotion politics. The man in the White House and his advisors have created an art of denying expert views and expressing their own counter arguments as ‘alternative facts’. Outright lies, even, are the order of the day, with fact checking service PolitiFact recording an incredible 69% of Donald Trump’s statements since 2015 as ‘untrue’.
Meanwhile, scandals such as phone hacking, MPs’ expenses and the MMR controversy have engulfed formerly respected elite institutions. The scepticism of specialists and experts has begun to pollute a much bigger ecology of knowledge and practice in our society – consuming the areas of media, politics, science and business. Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, which cost the business conservatively around $30 billion, was a tangible example of what society believed were corporate lies. In November 2017, IPSOS Mori found that only 36% of people regarded business leaders as truthful. Business was not the worst regarded: while only 27% of those surveyed believed journalists and 17% politicians, that contrasted with 94% trusting nurses to tell the truth.
How can business respond?
Corporate leaders are adept at giving the facts: whether that’s financial reporting, issuing statements in response to events, and worse, sometimes resorting to saying nothing at all in either the hope that the issue will disappear or because of fear of legal repercussion. But in today’s world of mistrust of institutions, just stating a fact is not going to make people believe it, or it will be simply ignored, de-prioritised from digital feeds. A statement is nothing without a story to drive it and facts do not speak for themselves. The human mind is predisposed to be drawn into stories, and so a message that is enveloped in a narrative arc, with a sympathetic protagonist (the company) and the tension of action (the obstacles overcome to achieve the strategy, perhaps), is more likely to persuade. We must wherever possible use less technocratic language, statistics, opaque strategy and acronyms. Clear evidence must be allied with more emotion and with greater regard to the value that the business is bringing to the topic in question. And companies must always remember to sound human: a simpler, more conversational style is easier to understand, and helps people feel you’re being open with them, so you stand out from the faceless corporations they no longer trust.
Second, businesses must engage. It is not enough to issue a statement, a comment, a correction on Twitter, or even appear on public broadcast networks. A much more creative use of channels is needed, one that is in keeping with our digital, influencing culture. A podcast may be more effective, proper engagement on digital channels once thought purely personal such as Facebook is more believable. Uber’s online petition on change.org in protest of TFL’s suspension of their London licence attracted more than 500,000 signatories in 24 hours. Their CEO did give the traditional interviews as well, but was the ‘weight’ of London’s support the crucial factor in their views being truly heard and understood?
Third, business must encourage intelligent critique of the fake news. Apathy – not to issues, but to the idea of not believing facts – is at an all-time high. Like individuals, business must not be passive in accepting the sources of fakery and call out untruths, while celebrating credible research and information. Business can lead the way here: companies are regulated by consumer protection laws and financial reporting standards – they know they themselves must communicate with veracity or the consequences are dire, not least by a loss of their reputation and goodwill among the public. They can inform, inspire and reassure their employees customers, regulators, investors and others in the Post Truth world.
The FT’s January 1st leader said: ‘the bottom line is that [companies] have to trade in ways that are competent, ethical and fair — and be seen to do so’. It is a challenge worth pursuing. As Matthew D’Ancona wrote in Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back: ‘Courage, persistance and collaborative spirit will be rewarded: the truth will out’.