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Are we really now living in a ‘post-truth’ world?

Jennifer Shah, SVP & Partner, Digital & Marketing Communications

Forgive the boring, “Oxford Dictionary defines…” opening, but this is one case where beginning with a definition is actually not only appropriate, but necessary. Oxford Dictionary has named its word of the year for 2016 and it’s (drum roll please) post-truth.


Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

I’m sorry. What?

The origins and rising popularity of the word ‘post-truth’ is centered smack dab in the middle of political discussions and policy debate – most notably Brexit and the recent U.S. Presidential election. In both instances, the narrative had a very loose relevance to the actual facts, yet resulted in stunning upsets based on public opinion. While I don’t pretend to be an expert or political commentator, I am a person who makes a living in the communications industry, but you don’t need to be an expert to see the implication of this type of trend and its potential impact.

Storytelling has never been more prominent in the world of media and information. The rates at which we see and share stories have increased exponentially; and organizations, charities, institutions and brands have all jumped in – looking for ways to better reach advocates, influencers, potential audiences or customers. Why? Because stories can connect in ways that facts or recounting information simply cannot. Stories activate both the emotional and rational elements of your brain and make you more likely to engage, and ultimately agree, with the storyteller and their story, as a result.

However, good stories should not come at the sacrifice of facts. Definitely not in politics, and certainly not in communications.

The stories that organizations tell should be their stories. Not the best ones they could make up. In fact, the number one rule for any organization looking to build, or rebuild, its reputation is quite simply, to tell the truth. Not the post-truth.

It is our role as communicators to help an organization find its best stories and tell them better – not to disregard the facts because we want an emotional connection or hope to cater to personal beliefs. There is no connection if it’s based on a lie. Ultimately it’s the truth that resonates. Or at least it should.

From fashion to food to finance, industries everywhere have heard loud and clear that their consumers want more transparency and visibility into their business practices.

Whether its supply chain, raw materials, environmental or ethical considerations, every element has been up for review and judgment, which is why we’ve also seen an increase in the commitment to corporate and social responsibility in recent years. This concept of post-truth may seem to some a shortcut to the hearts and wallets of consumers. But don’t be fooled.

We may be living in a post-truth moment, but I don’t believe that long-term, consumers will tolerate a post-truth world. It may take a little more work to incorporate the facts, but ultimately that’s what will deliver the connection that you seek. Want a winning formula for emotional appeal? Keep the post in production and leave the truth alone.