The post-truth era and digital media complicate the best intentions of talking straight and telling the truth. Well-argued facts may be trumped by often repeated opinions.
Reporting the news and communicating to target audiences have become far more challenging because truth is increasingly relative and trusted information sources are suspect.
“Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers,” Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine told the BBC. “For every fact, there is a counter-fact and all these counter-facts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.” In reality, facts and counter-facts intermingle almost indiscernibly with opinions posing as facts.
This reality goes beyond concerns over fake news. People view what’s happening around them through the lens of their political, ideological, religious and ethnic viewpoints. Put another way, we’ve become tribal about the information that immerses us and we ingest.
If anything, social media reinforces this tribalism by providing information vacuum chambers that closely resemble small village grapevines with parochial viewpoints. Social media also tends to feed the habit of hearing what you like – and provides the tools to lash out at what and who you dislike.
The non-stop speed of digital media is mind-numbing and outraces many of the mental safeguards people try to erect to weigh information fairly. The apparent collective coping mechanism of society in the digital age is to retreat to what is familiar – what we know or think we know.
For organizations, individuals and professional communicators trying to dispatch credible messages, especially in controversial settings or over contentious issues, the new shape of truth is a serious problem. Where once the challenge was to eliminate self-serving, ambiguous or false statements from communications, the challenge now is to couch messages in terms your intended audience will interpret as credible and not dismiss as fake.
Effective communication, whether written or spoken, has always depended on “knowing your audience.” Now it also means understanding how your audience will regard you and your views before you utter a word.
This is why many professional communicators, including me, emphasize actions before words. Actions are harder to misinterpret, even when the motives for actions are questioned. What you do can transcend tribal views of who you are and what you stand for. Your actions can interrupt the narratives of your opponents, giving you a chance to make a fresh impression divorced from pre-existing opinion.
Acting wisely, responsively and in a timely manner isn’t a magic wand that makes opposition or skepticism disappear. But actions can capture attention and open, if not change, otherwise closed minds. In a crisis environment, it is the best – and possibly only – shot you have to create a path for honest dialogue.
The post-truth era will most severely punish those who stumble into controversies unprepared, assuming they can bluster their way to a successful outcome. Misinformation is a hard beast to defeat and virtually impossible to overcome by chance. In bare-knuckle debates over major projects, housing developments or new policies, parties feel less restrained to stick with the truth as opposed to what sells. The smartest opponents know the importance of solid research and how to use it to arouse and enrage target audiences at your expense.
You can’t assume that traditional ways to group people are a true reflection of an audience. As Pew Research has shown, there are many fissures, for example, in groups we label as “liberal” or “conservative.” Making broad assumptions about an audience can overlook micro-groups and their quite distinct opinions.
Preparation must include research to know your opponent’s best arguments, as well as your own. But the post-truth era demands having a more visceral understanding of your audience, its perspective and its pain points. Facts won’t necessarily carry the day. Actions that take into account the biases and skepticism of an impacted audience have a better chance of leaping across the abyss of fact and fiction.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.