Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Post-Truth Era - Do We Need to Change Our Communications Strategies?

I wasn't really surprised to see that the Oxford Dictionary declared that the word of the year was 'Post-truth'. 2016 was a year that took so many of us by surprise, what with the UK voting in favour of Brexit and the US people electing a TV celebrity to the highest office in the country.

What frustrated Brexit/Trump opponents was that their audiences appeared to have stopped listening to facts and were believing anything they were told by their competitors. And I use the word 'frustrated' very carefully, as this is what they should be - but they're not. They're angry.

Anger can be all consuming. It can cause you to keep on doing what you're doing, but harder... And you still don't get results. And in some cases, things get worse.

Let's play with an analogy.


You have a campfire and you need to put it out. You know that pouring water on it will do that. You know that fire-fighters use water to put out fires. So, when you're presented with an unwanted fire, you just pour water on it and you've dealt with the situation...

But what about an electrical fire?

Most of us know that fighting an electrical fire with water is a bad idea - so we need to change the type of extinguisher we use.

And that's the communications arena we've now entered. There are still flames and heat, but you need to look at the cause of the fire to be able to deal with it. But the Post-Truth era has changed not only the cause, but the fuel.

I'm hoping that none of you have ever had to deal with a magnesium fire. There are flames and extraordinary heat. But, if you attempt to extinguish the fire with water... the water gets converted to hydrogen and oxygen - and adds enormous amounts of fuel to the fire and you're now in explosion territory.

And that's what's happened in the Post-Truth era. We have a different cause for our 'fire'. And a substantially different, and volatile, fuel. Continue communicating in the way you have been and you're throwing water on to your magnesium fire.

So what's the cause that enable Post-Truth communications? Principally, disenfranchisement.

People have lost trust. They feel they are not being listened to. They feel that the 'old ways' of doing things and status quo haven't worked - so they want to hear something new. They don't feel connected with the 'traditional' way of doing things and are looking for an (or any) alternative.

So what's the fuel?


People are upset, angry and want someone to agree with their feelings. They also want someone to blame.

Take the example of the Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Gove. On the run up to the Brexit vote Mr Gove was interviewed by Sky News and was presented with a list of nations and high ranking officials that thought that the UK leaving the EU was a bad idea. His response...
"The people in this country have had enough of experts."
The interviewer jumped on this suggesting that the voters we're going to have to employ "blind faith" in their decision making if they weren't listening to experts. But he, and we all, missed the point.

Gove had hit on something - and something raw. People don't like being told they're wrong. And Mr Gove effectively told them that they could dismiss anyone that disagreed with them. And they liked it - because of emotions.

In my previous post, I spoke about the fact that we, as humans, are not logical beings with emotions. We're emotional beings that have logic - when we want to. The Brexit debate was very emotional, as was the US Presidential Election. And here was their game-changer. Their principle messaging content wasn't facts. It was emotions.

This struck a chord with their audiences. They were employing the emotional nature of human beings to influence their decisions. We all do. We're all susceptible to it.

If you dislike someone and someone else agrees with you, you feel validated and solidify your feelings. But if someone tells you 'they give so much back to society, donate large sums to charity and repeatedly help their neighbours' - it's not uncommon to think 'Well... I still don't like them.'. You reject facts and fall back to your emotions.

Talking emotionally is so powerful because:

Emotions - Feel - True.

My previous post mentioned cognitive dissonance. And here it is in action. I feel something, but I can't express it in words or logic. Someone agrees with my feelings and it reinforces them. In fact, we then feel that these emotions are now facts by the very fact that other people agreeing with me.

And when someone challenges us with facts, we feel like we are being denied our feelings. We feel like our emotions are being dismissed... And the people denying our feelings, dismissing our emotions... They're the people we can blame!

That's why Post-Truth communications are such effective influence tools.

So what do we need to do to counter Post-Truth communications?

Get emotional!

We still need to collect our facts. But once we have them, we need to determine what emotions our audiences will resonate with. We then need to create our messages with those emotions at the forefront, substantiate them with facts, then return to the emotions.

This is nothing new. Aristotle postulated the Ethos, Pathos, Logos modes of persuasion. Traditional communications have centred on the Logos mode occasionally supported by the Ethos mode. Whereas Post-Truth centres on the Pathos.

So I suggest that we need to examine our communications strategies and see how we could develop messages that follow the order of:

  • Pathos
  • Logos
  • Ethos
  • And return to Pathos
To work in the Post-Truth era, and still work with facts, we need to examine the fuel that's being used. then we need to use it ourselves.

But make it more powerful by embedding the facts into the emotion.

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