A manifesto for public relations in a post-truth world

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

The UK European Union referendum and US election are a huge wake-up call for the communications trade, writes Stephen Waddington. Purpose, post-truth communication, polling, social capital, diversity, activist leadership and media bubbles mean many of the old ways of engaging the public are no longer fit for purpose.

Few people in the public relations business predicted the outcomes of either the European referendum or the US election. The public stuck two fingers up at political elites in both cases.

How did so many get it so wrong, and what can we learn?

Like many people in the public relations business I've been thinking a lot about the role of business, politics and public services; and the way that people in these spheres engage with the public.

I don’t think public relations is in crisis but we do need to be brave and ask tough questions about our business.

You can trace the history of post-truths in the public relations business from Edward Bernays in the 1900s to Max Clifford in the 1980s. More recently, from the Iraq War dodgy dossier in the early noughties, to the VW diesel emissions crisis this year.

This article is a manifesto for public relations in 2017. It’s a work in progress. Let me know what you think.

Purpose: keep asking why

Take back control was the Brexit campaign's rallying cry backed up by potent messaging around immigration.

President-elect Donald Trump sought to turn around post-industrial economic decline in the US by blaming globalisation. His rallying call was to make America great again.

Whatever your view of these campaigns, they were built on a rock solid message that allowed disparate groups to come together. They set out a simple unifying ambition that was easily understood.

Every campaign needs a clear purpose, something you can summarise in four or five words. Simon Sinek is a good guide.

Beyond that organisations need to take a good look at their values and be prepared to take a stand according to Omnicom PR’s David Gallagher.

“Publics are looking for a point of view. A value is only a value when you’re prepared to defend it,” he said.

Post-truth communication: "I read it on Facebook"

Facts are fickle beasts. They are always open to interpretation to suit an agenda.

Post-truth communication ranges from blatant bullshit to data that can be manipulated and spun to suit a story.

Robert Phillips, author of the book Trust Me, PR is Dead, suggests that the public relations profession must take responsibility in part for the post-truth, post-public relations age.

“It is the angry product of decades of half-truths, spin and naked deceit – piled on social exclusion and justice; crippling austerity; excessive pay ratios; and overall, a nasty disregard for the have-nots,” he said.

In 2016 messages published to social networks, whether true or false, can quickly become accepted wisdom within a community, even if they’re nonsense.

The Trump campaign turned the exploitation of these factors into an art form. It moved at speed spraying the internet with propaganda.

This wasn’t about news cycles, they’re long dead, but the Trump cycle. Opponents struggled to counter as Trump moved onto the next story.

Just how much influence issues like fake news had on the UK referendum and US election is yet to be determined.

Academics, media and technology execs have proposed a variety of ways in which search and social media organisations could address the issue.

Whatever the case, it's beholden on communicators to be honest in their communication. Bullshit and spin have no place in modern public relations.

Polling and research: what do you want to hear?

Polling isn’t broken but far too much emphasis has been placed on polls. They missed in the UK election in 2014, in the UK referendum and in the US election.

There are three issues in play.

First, political polls have become viewed by the media as a predictor of the results. My colleague and Ketchum European research chief, Ben Levine, put me straight. At best polls are an assessment of how the public is prepared to admit it feels on the day the poll is conducted, he said.

“I don’t think that polling or survey research is dead, nor do I think it needs to change dramatically. I do think we need to use it more responsibly and be honest about its limitations,” said Levine.

Second, survey approaches need to suit the public you want to study. Phone, online and face-to-face all have their place. The method you take will depend on where you’re doing the research and who you’re researching.

Third, people voting against conventional wisdom can be reluctant to admit it openly through fear of criticism or disapproval. This behaviour became known as shy Tory syndrome during the 2014 election.

A student at Newcastle University made this latter point in a workshop recently. He's stopped discussing politics on social media as it was impossible to separate his political views from his personal character.

If you're working on a campaign for 2017 use tools to establish a hypothesis and then put them down and go into the real world to talk, and more importantly listen to your publics.

Social capital: a community life force

Community is a much abused and maligned word in this social media era.

Create a Twitter hashtag, or build a Facebook or LinkedIn group, and people will come.

Except they don't. The internet is littered with failed community building efforts.

A few years ago, writer Andy Green bought me a copy of Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone.

Putnam tells the story of how bowling alley attendance is increasing in the US but bowling alley leagues are in decline.

He suggests this is due to a decline in social capital. It's an issue we're seeing in almost every area of public life.

In metropolitan Britain we bowl alone, or in small groups of friends, rather than collectively. Life is becoming more solitary and we've lost access to a cross section of society.

I used to live in the Coquet Valley, a small community of around 2,000 people in rural Northumberland. Crime and unemployment are low, and life expectancy is high. It maintains a high level of social capital though music, social, and sports activities.

If you walk into a pub around lunchtime on Sunday you'll find people mixing from almost every walk of life. There's a lesson there.

Social capital isn't something you'll find on a profit and loss statement but it'll be increasingly important for organisations seeking to build trust with their publics. They have an opportunity to help bring people together.

Representing publics

The UK public relations business should represent the publics that it purports to represent.

Ogilvy PR’s UK CEO Marshall Manson has called on staff to leave London and connect with Britain outside the M25.

Diversity is an area where the UK public relations industry has traditionally been lacking. Ours is a business in the midst of change.

Around 40% of the public relations profession is based in London and the South East according to data from the 2016 CIPR State of Public Relations survey.

There’s a broad geographic spread around the regions and nations.

Both the CIPR and PRCA puts the percentage of British white practitioners in the public relations business at 88% with the balance made up of black, Asian and mixed ethnic groups (BAME). It’s consistent with ONS data for the makeup of British society.

Taylor Bennett’s Sarah Stimson says that there is still work to do pointing to the 92% of white British board directors. We need better data and poor definitions obscure the situation she said.

A combination of a degree and work experience is the typical route into the profession but data is hard to find.

The PRCA has developed an apprenticeship offer working with the UK government that combines paid work placements with classroom learning, equivalent to the first year of a degree.

Around 250 people have graduated from the PRCA apprenticeship scheme since 2011. It’s becoming an important, mainstream route into the profession.

Activist leaders

Donald Trump is a celebrity entrepreneur. He has no experience as a politician, although he is now the president-elect of the US.

Nigel Farage has failed to win a seat in the UK Parliament and yet he was a figurehead of the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union.

The US and UK public respectively were so fed up with the political elites ignoring their grievances that they were prepared to back individuals with limited experience in politics or public life.

Farage and Trump are activist leaders. They’ve spotted the void left by political counterparts.

Both have succeeded in radicalising a movement behind a common purpose that challenges the status quo.

Jeremy Corbyn has done the same albeit with less succes, but then he’s a politician.

My guess is that publics will tire of Farage and Trump as soon as they fail to deliver. It’s game over before it started for Corbyn.

The public wants leaders and politicians that express clear purpose and live their values.

Networks and media bubbles

The Facebook newsfeed reinforces existing biases. It isn’t a good place to start if you’re seeking to be informed about political discourse.

The media that you’re served in your newsfeed is based on how you and people in your network interact with articles posted in the newsfeed.

If you liked and shared content supporting Britain remaining in the European Union during the referendum campaign that’s what Facebook will serve you. Its goal is to maximise your time and ad views on the platform, not broaden your horizons.

Likewise if you shared content supporting Hilary Clinton during the US election that’s what Facebook’s algorithm would serve you whenever you visited the social network.

It’s called a filter bubble as it lulls you into a false sense that the world is aligned with your point of view.

Critics call Facebook an affront to democracy but media has always operated this way. We’ve traditionally made media choices on the basis of our comfort with a particular bias.

The size and scale of Facebook is a concern. It’s the most powerful media platform in the world. According to Facebook Power Editor there are 37 million voting adults in the UK using the platform.

However, if you’d delved deeper into social media you can find greater sources of insight into the political debate.

I’ve long argued that online communities are one of the most influential forms of media. People come together to discuss topics and issues.

Communities exist on almost every form of social media ranging from Twitter to Wikipedia, and from Reddit to Instagram.

Within Facebook, communities operate within groups. These are places that community members visit to read content that has been posted and participate in discussions.

Groups are a place to visit and be informed rather than engage in discussion.

Views are typically polarised and behind the mask of a screen and keyboard people are more direct and often ruder that they would be in real life.

If you’re looking to Facebook for answers you need to pop filter bubbles and explore both sides of any debate.

Next steps: looking to 2017

I work in a global public relations firm where people are working around the clock to help brands and organisations rethink how to engage their publics. If you think you don’t need to reflect on your approach, you’re in a minority.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University. He tweets @wadds

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