Defining the “Post-Truth” Environment

By | February 14, 2017

post-truthIn recent posts, we’ve talked about the so-called “post-truth” environment we find ourselves operating in as communicators. For many, it feels like the ground under our feet has suddenly and quite substantially shifted, and the presumptions and PR playbook many relied on for decades have been turned on their head.

In reality, “post-truth” is widely misunderstood. It’s not simply a recent and strictly political phenomena, nor is “post-truth” an ephemeral trend like Second Life or Digg. Rather, the realization of a “post-truth” environment is the outcome of long-term seismic movements in the tectonic plates of communications: disintegrating trust in institutions, the urgency of an emotional connection with customers, increasingly siloed media ecosystems, and perhaps most importantly, securing permission from our key audiences. Although its often attributed to him, the truth is that Donald Trump didn’t create this “post-truth” environment – he capitalized on it.

Gallup has tracked confidence in major institutions since 1973, and the results over the past 20 years show a consistent disintegration of confidence and trust in nearly every major American civic institution, with the notable exception of the military. Consider the reduction in how many Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in these foundational institutions from 1996 to 2006 to 2016:

  • The Church or Religious Organizations: 57% in 1996, 52% in 2006, 41% in 2016
  • U.S. Supreme Court: 45% in 1996, 40% in 2006, 36% in 2016
  • Banks: 41% in 1996*, 49% in 2006, 27% in 2016
  • Public Schools: 38% in 1996, 37% in 2006, 30% in 2016
  • Newspapers: 32% in 1996, 30% in 2006, 20% in 2016
  • Television News: 36% in 1996, 31% in 2006, 21% in 2016
  • Big Business: 24% in 1996, 18% in 2006, 18% in 2016
  • Congress: 20% in 1996, 19% in 2006, 9% in 2016

*The decade-long savings and loan crisis was finally resolved in 1995.

Additionally, Gallup noted single digit drops in confidence in the Presidency, police, organized labor, and the medical system, among others. The lesson here? The ground has been moving under our feet all along – the most recent election was simply an overdue cold-water bath on the fallacy of old presumptions.

So, where to next? In upcoming blog posts, we’ll be looking in-depth at the implications of “post-truth” for a wide range of communicators, from crisis management and IR specialists to lifestyle brand marketers and issue advocacy communicators. After all, there are nuances to any specialized field in communications.

Still, taking a wide-lens view at this new communications landscape – whether you’re a communications leader of a Fortune 100 company or the publicity manager of a scrappy start-up – there are some immutable truths in this brave new world, both good and bad.

The good news is that fact-based narratives still matter. Credible and legitimate third party validators still matter. Thoughtful, targeted channel strategy and quality content all still matter. These pillars of our campaigns haven’t changed.

But the challenge for everyone is this new reality: before audiences will be receptive to your narratives, validators, and content – no matter how well crafted and curated – you must first have permission. And that permission comes from trust and emotional engagement, two of the most difficult things to earn and the easiest to lose. Still, while this might seem like a tall order, it’s an achievable one. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you in coming weeks, and encourage you to share your questions and thoughts.

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