“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
The struggle between fact and fiction is not new as this quote perfectly demonstrates – both in its meaning and in its disputed origin. Variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and others, there’s even disagreement about whether the truth is getting “its pants on”, “its shoes on” or possibly “its boots on”.
The irony of dissenting the genesis and nature of a quotation about lies will not be lost on anyone contemplating the events of the past 12 months. Something significant happened in 2016. Attitudes of distrust towards expertise and elitism have crystallized and have left us squarely in a post-factual world. This is nothing but a consolidation of four forces which have been feeding off each other.
The first of these forces is the continuing loss of trust in institutions. Less than half of the world’s population trust the media or governments; barely more than half trust business. Secondly, we have witnessed a growth in fake news enabled by social networks and search engine algorithms, a predilection for information that matches existing prejudices and a tendency towards groupthink. It’s little surprise then that Stanford University researchers found most students have trouble judging the credibility of information online. Facebook’s recent decision to engage third-party fact checkers illustrates the severity of the problem.
The third force is the rise of populism, expressed through protest votes seen in election cycles and referendums across the world. The final force – and another contributor to the rise of fake news – is the shift in media power away from the mainstream. With dramatically lowered barriers to entry, new age media and blogger journalists are chipping audiences away from the mainstream, eyeball by eyeball.
In turn these forces have caused and fuelled a growing feeling of exclusion. They have created a vicious cycle – a death spiral, perhaps – that drives people to a place where they feel validated. Invariably, that place is often far away from mainstream expert opinion.
If that’s the diagnosis, what is the response? The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting is responsive and responsible leadership and much will be said in Davos about institutions, structures and technology - both as an enabler and as a disruptor.
However, a crucial aspect of future leadership will lie in the field of communications. Many political and business leaders I have spoken to in recent months have been stunned by the unprecedented post-factual reality they are now dealing with. Yet they must find a way to communicate with and re-engage communities that currently do not trust them.
To start this journey, here are four communications strategies any leader must consider in the post-factual world:
Bring the CCO into the boardroom and cabinet
According to a recent study of Financial Times Top 500 firms, 24% of Europe’s chief communications officers (CCOs) have a place on the executive committee of their companies. While the trend is upwards, it still leaves the vast majority of companies without communications expertise at the highest level. This is an odd state of affairs given reputation risk is always cited as a clear and present corporate danger. From the 2008 financial crisis onward it’s difficult to identify a comms crisis that would not have been improved by a CCO sitting in the ultimate business chamber – the boardroom.
As it is with business, so it is with government. A cabinet-level role with responsibility for the government’s entire communications agenda could transform dialogue with citizens. To push through government agenda in a post-factual world requires transparency and a two-way dialogue to explain what is happening, why it’s happening and what it will entail.
Simplicity beats spending
Simple messages are winning messages. As both the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in the UK demonstrated, those with the deepest pockets don’t always prevail. The UK government may have spent £9 million on a leaflet sent to every household in the country spelling out the reasons to remain within the EU, but the simpler message prevailed - epitomized by a red bus outlining claims of specific gains for the National Health Service. The Clinton campaign may have outspent the Trump campaign by 50%, but again what prevailed was a very simple message emblazoned on a baseball cap – “Make America Great Again”.
It’s evident elsewhere, too. A survey of Brussels-based media found that 73% of journalists rated communications from the European Commission as wanting, despite an ample €500 million annual communications budget.
Go social first
The numbers should speak for themselves: Facebook alone attracts 1.8 billion active users a month and, more staggeringly, 1.2 billion users every day. Meanwhile, it is estimated that soon a third of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people – will be active on social media, regardless of network. When looking at the emerging population, it is worth noting that a recent TCS study found that half of Europe’s Generation Direct – those 18-29-year-olds that have come of age as digital natives – use social media to lobby for change.
Yet despite this body of evidence, social media is still treated by many in business and politics as just another channel, rather than the centrepiece of a media strategy. Let’s be clear: it’s not just another channel, but the very core of communications.
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Pass the “I.E. Test”: Inspire and Entertain
Psychologists talk broadly of two systems of the mind – one that is fast, intuitive, emotional and automatic; the other slower, more logical and deliberate. Conveniently, they label the former System 1 and the latter System 2, and while we may give credence to our more logical and deliberate selves, we ignore the fast and intuitive at our peril.
Evidence-based decision-making still matters – one might argue that it matters more than ever in a post-factual world – but data alone is not enough. Narrative matters. Storytelling matters. Emotional connection matters. This is especially true when addressing those who feel disenfranchised and alienated. In the clutter of content that constitutes digital and social media, breakthrough messaging must engage at the emotional level. And that means taking and passing the “I.E. Test”: inform, by all means, but make sure you inspire and entertain, too. If the truth finally needs to outrun the lie across the world, it needs new clothes. It can no longer be just that 600-page, expert report, but needs to be a snappy 60-second Instagram video too.