What can we learn from 'post-truth' politics?

Written by
Tim Harrison

22 Dec 2016

22 Dec 2016 • by Tim Harrison

The UK referendum and US presidential campaigns have created volatility in the transatlantic political sphere, unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. For iconoclasts, it has been a year of heady hoopla while for the established order, it has been a wake-up call like no other. Citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, in Europe and beyond, are only just beginning to understand the implications. Whatever your political take, it is fair to say that we are living in ‘interesting times.’

For professional communicators, it has been a uniquely troubling period. People who have built their careers on building understanding and shared meaning have seen divisive, inflammatory language engulf the national conversation. Discord has displaced dialogue. Confrontation has checked any move towards consensus. Meanwhile, a PR industry seeking to recover its moral credibility after too many years of spin has been thrust into a new crisis of identity. The notional values of authenticity, responsibility and trust have all lost currency and face fresh scepticism. Spin never went away, it appears. It was just hibernating and has now emerged a hungry, even uglier beast.

OK, political campaigning has always been different. It has never laid claim to the moral high ground. It has always played fast and loose. And we have always cut it some slack. Deep down, the public know the game and how the rules are tilted. We know we won't get everything we’ve been promised. But we’ll get something. So nothing really new here?

The creation of a 'new normal'

The campaigns in the US and the UK have redrawn the acceptable parameters of public debate. They have recalibrated national conversations, setting a worrying ‘new normal' when it comes to authentic stakeholder dialogue. Our Fourth Estate is failing us. Established media brands are more partisan than ever while the fake news industry grows at an alarming rate. It's a toxic mix that is raising some fundamental questions about the nature and sanctity of truth itself. 

We are living in an era of ‘post-truth’, and now it's official. After dominating the zeitgeist for much of the last 12 months, Oxford Dictionaries, guardian of the OED and lexicographer of record, has hailed it as its word of the year

Post-truth; relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

But here’s the thing. By this dictionary definition at least, ‘post-truth’ is nothing new. It may be the word of the year, but we have long lived in its shadow. The political earthquakes of the past year have merely woken something that has lain intellectually dormant. A seismic shift in political narrative has revealed an ancient truth. The lesson to modern communicators is this. If you are serious about driving change, then appealing to emotion and personal belief really, really, matters.

Emotion in the organisation

Organisational communicators have traditionally shied away from emotions. Feelings don’t drive dialogue and decision making.  From an early age, we are taught that rationality makes us human. Grown-ups use facts; children get emotional (or use it to get their own way). And there is nowhere that we are more encouraged to behave like 'grown-ups' than in the professional environment. 

The responsible organisation engages in honest and meaningful dialogue with its employees. Pragmatism, objectivity and logic should be the default settings. Corporate decisions result from rational argument, supported by corroborated and inarguable data points. Therefore, corporate communications should reflect the sobriety and the seriousness of the process. Not get all… emotional. Right?

The trouble with that approach is that you don’t inspire people to do anything different. When we want to communicate change, we cannot only rely on the facts. Facts help us set the context.  Yes, we need objective data and proof points to support and corroborate our claims. But facts by themselves will get us nowhere.

Because as much as our post-enlightenment brains like to identify as rational, we are deeply emotional creatures. We are much more engaged by the possible than by the provable. The incredible will always be more interesting than the incontrovertible.

We need to make an emotional connection with what ​could happen in the future before we will listen to a rational explanation of what ​we are required to do to make it happen. Feelings are the dominant decision-driver. We’ll go with our gut and only then apply our brains to justifying that visceral prejudice. Facts are not so much the workout fuel of rational decision-making. They are just the post-gym recovery shake to help repair any strained cognitive bias. 

Emotion inspires change

Great leaders understand that only an emotively-derived narrative can inspire positive, transformative change. Only by helping individuals make that vital emotional connection to the common purpose can we get real engagement.

Great leaders are also very clear about their own point of view. They make their hopes and beliefs inseparable from organisational purpose, their personal investment in change unmistakeable.

Authenticity is essential here, on top of honourable intentions and a commitment to deliver upon any promise. An emotional narrative built on a questionable premise or just poor data may succeed in winning short term support. A cynical manipulation of bias will never succeed in driving sustainable change or lasting success. This applies as much in the corridors of power as in the nation’s boardrooms. We should take solace in the fact that that using emotion to bear truth will always win out over using it to carry lies and undeliverable promises.

As organisational communicators and leaders, we must all recognise the importance of emotion in telling our corporate stories. As Inditex (Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, etc.) CEO, Pablo Isla, recently told the Harvard Business Review, “I’m gradually learning to be less rational and more emotional. We need to appeal to employees’ emotions to help create an environment where they can innovate.”

The events of 2016 have shaken the foundations of global politics and given the ethical communicator a good shake up at the same time. As we emerge from a bruising year, it remains to be seen whether we are now experiencing the aftershocks or the build-up to something even more tumultuous. But however the politic narrative develops, it serves as a clear and timely reminder of the power of emotional messaging to drive change. In dishonest hands, it can wreak havoc. But communicators who can channel that emotional power honestly and responsibly will unlock its remarkable capacity for good.