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Post-Truth In Politics

16/11/2016 16:10

The news that Oxford Dictionaries has declared 'post-truth' its 2016 international word of the year is not just a sign of the impact it has had on politics. Unless challenged 'post-truth' will become accepted practice with evidence and experts being consigned to history. There is no reason why this cannot apply as much to business communications as politics. Unchecked, it will become how we communicate all the time.

The danger, if it is one, is that organisations like to use methods that have worked for others. The theory being that 'if it has worked for them, it might work for me'. In the case of 'post-truth' that success is undoubted.

So how did we end up here? What campaigning worked?

1) Stand by your stats - there was widespread criticism about some of the financial figures used in the referendum campaign, by both sides. However, it was the figure used by the Leave campaign about the amount paid by the UK into the EU that caused most controversy. Despite a number of respected bodies disputing the number used, the Leave campaign remained completely faithful to it throughout and did not give ground. Putting a figure on the side of a bus, promising the money would be spent on the NHS just compounded the 'post-truth' approach. Plus the bus used the NHS logo further trying to show that the number was real.

2) It's not just about information - there were constant cries for 'facts' during the referendum campaign but arguably the tactics that seemed to win more support for the Leave campaign were when they showed their passion and determination. They resonated with the issues being raised across the country and played on the fears surrounding them, particularly where it came to immigration. So the appeals were emotional as well as factual.

Trump worked a similar approach. Listening to the fears and play those back at the electorate but with a simplistic solution. That fits with a 'post-truth' approach.

3) You can't turn around a super-tanker quickly - in both the referendum and the presidential election it became clear that changes of approach are difficult to achieve. For the then Prime Minister David Cameron, his main problem was that he had spent his time in office criticising the European Union and then suddenly became a convert to campaign for Remain. Similarly on immigration, his message was less than consistent. There had been no positive view of the EU or immigration presented for many years so Cameron's sudden conversion convinced few.

This issue cropped up for Hillary Clinton. On free trade, relationships with Wall Street and other issues, her apparent change of position did not just fail to convince but played into the widespread perception of a lack of trust and consistency.

4) The ability to display many-faces - not in a Game of Thrones style but there was a not a single version of Leave or a single version of Donald Trump that emerged during the campaigns. This both broadened their respective appeals and made it more difficult to pin down. They could be all things, to all people. Whilst this was a strength in the campaigns, and in helping them to win, it has the potential to be a major weakness where it comes to delivery as no-one really knows what Leave looks like or what Trump will actually do.

5) The 'bubble' - the US has long been used to complaints about Washington insiders but the UK equivalent, the Westminster bubble, came to prominence in the referendum campaign. The bubble was used as a shorthand for politicians not understanding anything that goes on outside of Parliament and being detached from the lives of ordinary people. This also came through in complaints about Remain representing 'the elite' and 'the establishment'.

Added to this was the constant talking down of the opinion of experts by Trump and Leave. Experts were part of the 'the establishment' and 'the elite' so by definition not to be trusted.

6) Crucially don't be afraid to be controversial - no-one looking at politics should be surprised by this but controversy isn't an end in itself. Instead it is used to highlight an issue and show action and difference from other candidates or the other side of the campaign. That ties in the disruption, anti 'political correctness' of the elite - see point 5!

These controversial views then also help the media campaign. The views get you airtime that you may not otherwise be entitled to. They need controversies, outrage and something to help fill their airtime / column inches / home page. The views can cut through and, in effect, outweighs balance. Airing the views also allow you to prove that you are something the establishment is not, politically incorrect. Then add in a dose of social media and direct communications then Use the media, it gives them something to cover. And use social media

Critically, what a 'post-truth' approach leads us towards is a lack of trust.

The fight back may ironically come from disappointment. If the Brexit deal does not live up to the over-hyped expectations or the consequences of the deal do not deliver the stronger, more independence, muscular Britain that was promised then the people will hit back. Hopefully only through the ballot box.

It could be a similar story with President Trump. The speculation is whether Trump as President will do things differently from Trump as candidate. If is then the question will be how disappointed people will be? If they didn't think his ideas were serious in the first place then the disappointment will be less. If they really did believe in the ideas then there will be a crashing back down to earth with a significant bump. The idea that there can be a different approach between running and governing seems to have raised few eyebrows.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether a fight back is needed against 'post-truth'. If so, it needs to start now.

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