Post-truth tests PR's mantra on authenticity

Why the role of PR and communications is more vital than ever in our "post-truth" environment.

Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in D.C., which was attacked this week by a gunman motivated by fake news
Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in D.C., which was attacked this week by a gunman motivated by fake news

Post-truth was last month named the international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.

One side-effect of the so-called post-truth environment is the prevalence of fake news, purveyors of which claimed a significant role in deciding the recent U.S. presidential election.

Fake news also this week led to a gunman storming Comet Ping Pong pizza in Washington, D.C. because he believed a conspiracy theory peddled online that the pizzeria was the base for a sex abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton.

Oxford defines "post-truth" as "Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief," citing the following usage: "In this era of post-truth politics, it's easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire."

Wikipedia defines post-truth politics, which it also dubs "post-factual" politics, as "a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored."

I would normally run a mile in hobnail boots rather than quote Wikipedia, and caution the PRWeek editorial team against ever using it as a credible source, but hey, in this post-truth environment anything goes, yes?

Well, that wasn't the worst Wikipedia citation ever, but no actually.

This is exactly the time when media and communicators need to double down on the standards of truth, authenticity, transparency, best practice, and facts that have traditionally defined their crafts.

Last month, President Obama said: "If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems. If everything seems to be the same, and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect."

This was reiterated on Monday evening at the 2016 PRWeek Hall of Fame Dinner, which inducted six great communicators into the fold: Margi Booth, Lisa Caputo, David Drobis, Steve Harris, John Onoda, and Patrice Tanaka.

In their acceptance speeches, all of these exceptional PR pros noted that now more than ever is the time when the key tenets of authentic public relations and communications need to come to the fore.

I was a little dismayed that an organ as august as The New York Times gave the Washington gunman, Edgar Welch, the oxygen of fairly unquestioning publicity in an interview it conducted with him from his jail cell via videoconference.

This guy drove 350 miles from his home in North Carolina to walk into a public place brandishing a semi-automatic assault rifle and The Times is treating it like a lifestyle interview, though to be fair the piece certainly amplified where the current febrile atmosphere has got us to.

"I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way," Welch said. That has to qualify as one of the year’s greatest understatements and goes some way to explaining how big an issue post-truth is.

Though I realize there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, in an ideal world I would like to remove terms such as post-truth and alt-right from the lexicon of modern conversation. They are at best meaningless, at worst vehicles to mask what those phrases really represent: lies and neo-fascism.

I’d be the one lying if I said I thought it was going to be easy to reinstate values of authenticity and balance. But it is incumbent upon the communications and marketing industry to determine as a matter of urgency how it fits into, and interacts with, this new world.

One good starting point would be to better regulate where brands’ marketing dollars are landing, especially money invested in programmatic advertising.

As the The Wall Street Journal pointed out this week, many large brands are inadvertently funding fake news sites, some of which bring in tens of thousands of dollars a month, as algorithms place their ads next to articles based on users’ past browsing history.

It’s just one of the downsides of moving from a human-based media planning system to an automated one, but brands and agencies have to do better in determining where their communications material ends up.

No matter how difficult it is going to be, it’s up to the media, marketers, and communications pros to work to ensure our future is based on objective facts, authenticity, and transparency, not lies and deceit.

To reiterate: in this "post-truth" environment, anything doesn’t go. That is not what America is about.

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