Rarely pure and never simple: Post-truth PR

Posted on November 22, 2016 by Xenia Kingsley

2016, eh? Don’t worry – I’m not going to harp on about how rubbish this year is, was and continues to be – I did that in my last blog. So, skipping the diatribe, let’s talk about the latest victim of this annus horribilis: truth itself. 

Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ the word of the year. Post-truth refers to situations in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The rise of the term has come about not just (as you might expect) because of Brexit and the US election, but more broadly as the way people consume information has evolved.  

In America (where’s the UK equivalent data, researchers?) 62% of adults now get their news from social media. However, as we’ve seen on countless occasions, the news feed first approach – information that is unvetted by sites and curated by users – leads to the spread and echo-chamber amplification of misinformation.

It must be acknowledged that there are more than one type of ‘fake news’ – including, in my opinion, the much needed parody pieces, such as those propagated by Southend News Network, including a recent favourite: Southend residents evacuate town over supermoon collision fears’. More sinister and concerning however are those articles that are designed to mislead.  

For their part, Google and Facebook are doing all they can to crack down on fake news, including Google’s planned removal of it’s ‘In the news’ feature which, unlike its news search tab, is purely algorithmic and so more easily duped by counterfeit content. However, as Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”truth-166853_960_720

Mark Zuckerberg has himself pointed out that eradicating fake news from Facebook is  "complex, both technically and philosophically". In censoring content, Facebook runs the risk of becoming an "arbiter of truth" – something Zuckerberg has steadfastly stated he wants to avoid.

Now, I’m fully aware that PR doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to arbitrating truth. This goes all the way back to the 1920’s with Edward Bernays, ‘the father of public relations’ and his ‘manipulation of the masses’ principles. But for those of us working in modern PR, particularly B2B – it’s clear that things have changed.

Ignoring for a moment the ‘8 out of 10 cats’ survey approach (which, though simplistic, has a place in the world), let’s consider the role economic modelling, implicit testing and in-depth opinion research plays in informing the news today. Pick up any newspaper and I guarantee you’ll find a story informed by PR research within the first couple of pages.

There’s a good reason for this – journalists need proof points but just don’t have the time or resources to conduct primary research for every piece they write. Equally, businesses need proof points to evidence the issues that their services solve. But in order for there to be an equilibrium between the media and businesses, we must ensure that the data we as PRs source is robust.

If PR is to continue to have its place in today's changing media, it needs to start 2017 with a resolution of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


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