View from the Street: It’s official, we’re now Post-Truth

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View from the Street: It’s official, we’re now Post-Truth

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year is always a good indication of what the hot topics of the previous 12 months have been. In this case it’s (ironically) two words, which have been fused together to create a new adjective, defined by the OED as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

For me, this instantly conjures up images of the bright red Vote Leave bus emblazoned with the infamous “£350 million a week for the NHS” pledge. Or Nigel Farage grinning in front of his “Breaking Point” poster. Trump’s Mexican border wall or any other number of his outlandish campaign promises spring to mind too. And a US election result so disappointing that I wish it had been fake news.

In his column in The Times this week, Hugo Rifkind described how he very successfully spread a fictional quote around the world. By accident.

Rifkind tweeted an imagined response by Ivanka Trump to her father’s suggestion that he might date his daughter if they weren’t related. “If he wasn’t my father,” she was reported to have said in 2006, “I’d spray him with mace”. Rifkind innocently tweeted this quip last Thursday afternoon and then went out for a drink. By the time he came back, it had been picked up by a mainstream news site, and was then replicated by news sites across the US and UK. Nobody had verified it but it had grown uncontrollably in the hot-house that is social media.

In the last month of campaigning before the EU referendum vote, Michael Gove boldly said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. “I’m not asking the public to trust me,” he told Sky News on 3 June, “I’m asking them to trust themselves”.

Communications professionals, who study the art of persuasion and agonise over how best to tell compelling stories, have long considered the “expert view” one of the sharpest tools in their box. In a post-truth era, and if Gove’s instincts are correct, what does this mean for how we communicate?

At face value, it suggests that whoever shouts the loudest and pulls off the most eye-catching stunts will make the airtime, regardless of whether what they say makes any sense, is well researched, logical or indeed rooted in fact.

It would also suggest that the person delivering the message really matters. In an era where news that isn’t true can be replicated across the globe instantly – just ask Hugo Rifkind – it also means we need to be much sharper and more alert to stay on top of a story, and to challenge what’s simply not right as quickly and vocally as possible.

As a reader, it makes me increasingly wary and weary about questioning every source. And as a communications professional, it makes me think we must work harder to connect with our audiences in the ways they will relate to best.

One small consolation in recent days is that Donald Trump has stopped writing his tweets entirely in upper case. Mr Trump, you have my attention. There’s no need to keep shouting. Just tell me the truth.

Susan Arthur is a Senior Associate who spent seven years with Brunswick Group in her native South Africa. Susan moved to Scotland from Johannesburg in 2015. Her first role here was with Bread PR, where she advised oil and gas and professional services companies. She joined Charlotte Street Partners in February 2016.

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View from the Street will be sent to our subscribers every week. It is a regular look at events, either highlights of the week just gone or looking forward to events to come, whether in business, politics or just what we are thinking about at Charlotte Street Partners.