Every 12 months, Oxford Dictionaries chooses a word or term ‘to reflect the passing year in language’. In a politically turbulent year defined by a pretty stunning Brexit and then a jaw-droppingly shocking Donald Trump US Presidency, 2016 produced a clear winner: ‘post-truth’.
Thought to be first coined in an essay on the Iran-Contra scandal and first Gulf War, post-truth had finally come to prominence with a 2,000 per cent increase in its usage in a range of media over the 12 months.
Oxford Dictionaries definition of post-truth reads: ‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’
The fundamental premise of the term divides communicators, journalists and politicians alike. There are plenty of Remain campaigners from the EU Referendum, still scarred by what they see as blatant Leave lies over immigration and the NHS, who believe this is the paradigm in which political and possibly even corporate communications is now trapped.
Conversely, there are others, particularly among those who have been on the side of the winners in recent years, who believe it is gobbledegook and misunderstands the basic campaign tactic of massaging the most supportive facts to their advantage.
Either way, the growing public use of the term brings with it the danger there will be a public acceptance that the communications industry systematically lies: a perception both camps are eager to avoid.
The use of the term ‘post-truth’, according to Oxford Dictionaries, spiked around the EU Referendum and presidential election. These were groundbreaking events that are naturally the focus of any analysis of the significance of the concept, but they are merely the most glaring example of a broader public distrust of anything that can be broadly considered the ‘establishment’.
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that Brits trust in Government, media, business and NGOs is down even on the depths of the financial crisis in 2012. Low income households are particularly furious, with trust in business alone down eight percentage points to 27 per cent on January last year.
Worryingly for corporate communicators, belief in the credibility of chief executives is at an all-time low, with all 28 countries surveyed, from the UK to Colombia, down over 2016.
These statistics show the perception of authority has changed, but with it has come tolerance of misrepresentation: two in five Brits said they would support politicians they believed would make their families’ lives better even if they ‘exaggerated the truth’.
‘It is becoming more widely accepted that politicians lie, or at least bend the truth slightly,’ says Lucy Thomas, an associate director at Edelman who was previously co-director of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. ‘For many people, trust is now much more about authenticity and whether This person
is my kind of person, speaking my kind of language than it is about total 100 per cent factual accuracy.’
Thomas worries that people are ‘becoming more immune to news they don’t want to hear’. She thinks this is why many Leave voters ignored seemingly authoritative information warning about the loss of jobs and likely rise in inflation that would come with secession from the EU.
Indeed, the Remain campaign was startled to find that Leave voters could accept exaggeration provided there was a kernel of truth that chimed with their views.
‘The big red bus promising £350 million a week for the NHS was the perfect example,’ argues Thomas, pointing to the extra amount per week the Leave campaign said would then be available for hospitals and doctors in the event of Brexit.
‘When you asked people in focus groups what they thought about official bodies dismissing the number and saying the real figure was closer to £100 million, they’d say Yeah, but it’s still a big number.’
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is even angrier at that particular figure, warning there is a responsibility on communicators to stick to the facts when the stakes are so high. ‘There’s not a penny extra available for the NHS – it’s a colossal lie that changed the direction of a country and a continent,’ he fumes. ‘We’re not saying that politicians have just discovered lying, but what has happened over the last few years is lying is now something for which there is no comeback, no penalty – people do it with impunity. It’s all about people’s jib rather than the contents of what they say.’
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications and strategy, points to the ‘extraordinary’ scene of the first media conference held by Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer. He berated the press for spreading lies about the size of the new President’s inauguration ceremony – Spicer claimed it was the biggest in history, despite photographic evidence that it was far smaller than that of Barack Obama.
Campbell tells CorpComms Magazine: ’It’s not just about posttruth, it’s the decline of trust. I don’t want to entirely blame social media, but it does make it easier for conspiracies to get going. ‘I still think strategy is the most important thing and my hope is that there will be a backlash [against lying]. You’ve dealt in the past with people who have pushed things to the limit, interpret statistics in a way that helps you best. But previously you’ve seen this [post-truth] only in totalitarian and anti-democratic states, not democracies.’
James McGrory, who was deputy director of communications to Nick Clegg and is now co-executive director at Open Europe, warns: ‘A significant danger in communications from post-truth politics is that all sides get tempted into a bidding war about who can tell the biggest and most outrageous lie.’
Some have argued this already happened during the Brexit campaign, when one side seemed to suggest the entire population of Turkey could soon fly over to the UK, while the other appeared to hint at World War III should the country leave the bloc.
But McGrory insists the problem is with the rise of populist movements. ‘The professional challenge those on the moderate side of the argument must set ourselves is not how do we beat the pushers of post-truth politics at their own game, but how do we beat them while keeping open, rational and honest debate?
‘The rise of populism across the Western world shows just how challenging that is and few, if any, have cracked it so far. But in the search for clear, coherent, popular messages, we must not abandon facts, evidence and expertise.’
Alex Deane, the FTI Consulting managing director who was executive director of the Grassroots Out Movement, warns communicators must be aware of the growing ‘cynicism’ about corporate culture. He adds that they need to remind relevant audiences that these City bosses ‘absolutely want to do the right thing and work for ethical companies that behave properly’.
However, the more pressing problem is the ongoing bitterness over the EU result and recalls some of the sterner warnings from the self-styled ‘moderates’ have proved incorrect. He says: ‘It’s all too easy to be cynical about politics and politicians. But even if it’s merited in some specific circumstances, such cynicism has a corrosive effect on our national life. It was obviously false when the Treasury said we’d have an immediate recession if we voted to leave the EU, or that every household would be £4,300 worse off.
‘But that doesn’t mean that I think everyone at the Treasury is a liar. We should be a little more understanding about circumstances when people speak heatedly or in haste and, as we all do from time to time, get things wrong. If we were more like that, then perhaps people would even be more likely to admit when they’re wrong about something rather than dig their heels in.’
Others, though, are in less conciliatory mood and are fed up with what they see as the use of sweeping terminology by a losing side keen to cover their own failures to win the argument.
Matt Walsh is director of campaigns at Media Intelligence Partners and worked for the Brexiteers. He claims ‘post-truth’ is a term designed to ‘discredit’ opponents who do not have the weight of the ‘establishment’ behind them.
However, Walsh admits that 2016 changed the way communications was practiced, as savvier campaigns grasped that simple messaging on social media would reach more people than a detailed document.
Walsh adds: ‘Very few people have time to read excessively long policy papers but want to keep informed of what is going on in politics and therefore communications strategists are using shorter messaging to accommodate this. However, just because the words are few, it doesn’t make them untrue.’
Indeed, some communicators think the term is simply patronising and that its very use needs to be stopped, lest the whole industry be branded liars when what every side is looking to do is use legitimate campaign tactics.
‘The whole concept is a nonsense,’ sighs Pagefield founder Mark Gallagher. ‘Whether you’re a Remainer in the UK, a Hillary supporter in the US, or on the losing side [generally], this is just a jolly good excuse for not winning. Campaigning has always been about facts based in relative truth, which means using killer facts, killer truths to help you win – and that’s been deployed by every employer and political campaigner.
‘The whole notion that you deploy an argument the public don’t find convincing means in some way the public is wrong is deeply offensive. Some campaigners and communicators need to wise up and stop whinging about campaigning that has gone on for thousands of years.’
John Rentoul, chief political commentator at The Independent, says the Remain and Hillary Clinton campaigns were ‘more scrupulous’ about their campaigns, but their opponents did nothing particularly unusual in a historical context. He points to the Zinoviev letter, a controversial document that was published by the Daily Mail a few days before the 1924 general election.
Supposedly written by Soviet Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev, the letter was addressed to the Communist Party of Great Britain and suggested a Labour victory might agitate the working class.
This is thought to have contributed to a surge in the Conservative vote and it was almost certainly a fake – something the intelligence authorities are thought to have known at the time of its leak.
‘People playing fast and loose with the truth in democratic votes is not a new thing,’ sighs Rentoul, who even points to the finger at his own political hero. ‘Even Tony Blair during his secular saint phase accused the Tories of wanting to scrap the state pension in the 1997 election.’
Rentoul says the purpose of any disingenuous campaigning is not to gain new supporters. Rather it is to maintain the morale and solidify the support of those who are that side’s natural backers.
‘I don’t think any fake news stories on Facebook persuaded anyone who was going to vote for Clinton to switch to Trump,’ he says. ‘They were all about reinforcing tribal loyalties. Trump supporters shared fake stories if they supported what they already believed.’
On the corporate communications side, some experts think it is less likely to remain an issue given that financials are so naturally guided by statistics rather than emotions, even if chief executives are increasingly doubted. Jonathan Refoy, the former European corporate affairs director at engineering group CH2M Hill, says: ‘All good corporate communications is grounded in fact about the company’s objectives, performance and growth and you shouldn’t depart from that.
‘Spinning corporate news really doesn’t have a place in corporate communications, particularly when you’re building trust with customers, regulators, journalists and stakeholders.’
Whether the term ‘post-truth’ is fair or not, the political communications industry has certainly been forced to adapt to the social media age and its associated distrust of elites in the past 12 months – and the accused seem to have been able to produce simpler messages more effectively than the accuser thus far.
Moreover, with elections that could potentially further destabilise the EU in the Netherlands, France, and Germany to come over the next 12 months, it seems certain Oxford Dictionaries will see further spikes in the use of the term in 2017.