In the final interview of Show 42 of the csuitepodcast that I recorded at PRWeek’s 2017 PR360, I spoke with Nick Barron, Managing Director for Corporate Reputation at Edelman who had taken part in a panel discussion at the event on the topic of ‘PR in the political landscape – how do brands remain relevant in a post-truth world’.
Nick has some very strong views on both ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’, phrases that are now being used with great regularity. He believes that whilst they have some merit in terms of what they mean and stand for, they have become an excuse for the liberal elites (citing those at PR360, including himself) to avoid having to look inwards. He said that post-truth has become a catch all phrase for anyone who doesn’t come to the same conclusions as those in the group he referred to come to when they look at a problem, and fake news has become a catch all term for any news source they don’t like very much!
He did caveat this with the fact that there is real fake news and indeed, it has always been a problem, referring to the Hitler Diaries and the MMR Controversy, although perhaps the volume of it had grown in recent years. However, he stressed that the volume of all news that we receive has grown and so couldn’t be sure if the proportion of fake news had grown proportionately.
Fake News, for Nick though, is a distraction from what he sees as the real challenge, which is not so much that we don’t know who to trust anymore, but that we don’t care who we trust anymore. He said that as an audience, we are not looking for authoritative news stories but those which support our point of view – he said that we’ve all become propagandists and are happy to share information that supports our own politics and helps us signal our own virtue. Nick believes we are less concerned than perhaps we used to be as to whether those stories are true or credible.
The issue of trust is something Nick said Edelman have looked at for 17 years across 30+ markets talking to thousands of people [see the Edelman Trust Barometer] and that the long terms story in that time has been the decline of traditional authority. He added that we do still care about truth, but no longer believe traditional authority sources, be that an MP, GP, Editor, or CEO. Instead, we are increasingly trusting of people like ourselves, i.e. friends and family or an influencer that we identify with. Nick doesn’t have too much of an issue with this though, as he says there is healthy scepticism in this as he doesn’t believe we should automatically trust authority as that leaves us vulnerable to exploitation, corruption and to being fooled. However, his concern is that over the last few years, we have tapped into an unhealthy cynicism, whereby we only trust our own side [of an argument] and are less and less receptive of the opposite point of view and so more inclined to share content that is narrative driven rather than fact driven.
When it comes to trust of brands, Nick confirmed the most trusted sources are those such as the Technical Experts because the audience believes those people are working for something other than profit, are dedicated to their particular field and are motivated by the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when these people talk, we imagine they have spent years and years studying their subject matter and are operating at the front line of an issue and we therefore trust their point of view.
Where he thinks Michael Gove was leading to, referring back to Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign of having ‘had enough of experts’ (see clip below), was that many of the people who are put forward as experts on a topic by the media, political campaigners and sometimes by companies, such as Heads of Think Tanks or Super National Bodies, are not trusted by the public as credible experts, but instead viewed as elites, who are ideologically or politically driven and so don’t necessarily trust them to be independent experts on a topic.
In fact, Nick said that there is some evidence that this view is correct, as there have been studies over the years looking at the profile of an expert, how famous they are, and the accuracy of their predictions and he said that there is a direct inverse relationship between the accuracy of an experts predictions and how often they are on TV. This is why, according to Nick, ‘real’ experts are much more nuanced in their analysis and more guarded about the things they say but as a result, provide much less good copy!
This discussion lead to Nick saying that a lot of the reporting and content that creates problems for communications people is not necessarily a lie, as usually there is some basis in fact, but it is likely to be a set of facts presented in a very skewed or unreasonable way and so that’s what keeps the comms teams busy on the reactive side of their jobs, i.e., dealing with journalists who want to get to a certain story and will bend the facts to make them fit that story. This is why, in Nick’s opinion, Media Relations, knowing how to craft a story and get your point of view across when your brand is being discussed and campaign on issues in an effective way, still matters and that there is still an art to it.
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