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Truth, post-truth and reality

10 June 2020

By Bob Huxford, Partner

My advice has always been that you put honesty and integrity at the forefront of communications. Whether you are looking to build brand or investor loyalty, building trust is paramount. Spin, obfuscation or downright lies might help you dodge a bullet in the short term but in the longer run there’s a good chance it will come back to bite you on the backside, potentially with devastating consequences.

In the world of US politics, however, the opposite has, for some time, appeared to be true. Fake news was rife during the 2016 presidential campaigns and proved extremely popular. Analysis by BuzzFeed found that the top 20 fake news election stories on Facebook enjoyed more engagement than the top 20 election stories from traditional media outlets. This news was in part generated by malign foreign agencies intent on disruption, but homegrown politicians were wilfully inventing and propagating disinformation of their own, and those that were most effective at these practises appeared to enjoy most political success.  

Did that mean the American public, all of whom were stakeholders in the election, had ceased to place a high value on the truth? Certainly, little has changed in US politics and the 2020 elections look set to employ even more chicanery. Politicians will spend over a billion dollars on campaigns designed to extol their apparent virtues and denigrate the opposition, and often, the less accurate the information, the more likely it is to be amplified by partisan forums, influencers and media outlets. 

Although it may seem honesty has lost importance the wider public does still view it as critical. According to Pew Research, 50% of Americans think disinformation is a major concern, which was a higher percentage than their response regarding climate change. In another Pew survey, from late last year, it was also shown that the majority of American voters felt fake news was there specifically to damage their party, regardless of political persuasion – 51% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans.  

The issue isn’t that people don’t want the truth, it’s that they don’t know where to find it. With brazen lying having been normalised, even by actors in the highest office, faith in the media and institutions has been eroded to such an extent it becomes difficult to know who to trust. The result, as intended by the purveyors of fake news, is increasing polarisation as individuals take refuge in the safety of their echo chambers. 

However, societies and economies rely on the exchange of accurate information to function efficiently. Without it cracks inevitably start to appear, with disinformation breeding social distrust, paranoia and resentment. It is no coincidence that it is now that we are witnessing civil unrest in the US not seen since the sixties. In the past two weeks tens of thousands of US citizens have taken to the streets in protest against police brutality. This has been met with scenes that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, including American security forces charging peaceful protestors outside the White House. 

At its best, PR is about ensuring the accuracy of the information we rely on. It is about maintaining lines of open and honest communication, raising awareness of what is important and fostering sensible debate. Nothing has changed in the advice I offer. Indeed, in these confusing times, being recognised as a source of reliable and honest information has never been more valuable and will only create greater stakeholder loyalty. As events in America are clearly illustrating, there are only so many bullets you can dodge before one of them ends up lodged in your behind.