Guest Column, latest-stories

We don’t want the truth

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Only a version of if that fits with our belief systems. “People use facts like a drunk person uses a lamp post. Not to see the path ahead but to hold on to what we already believe in,” I quote Scottish poet and literary critic, Andrew Lang.

Stories provide meaning to facts. How we hear stories is effected by our beliefs, our value-systems and the sum total of our life experiences that creates a lens through how we filter information and accept the bits that match what we want to hear more readily than what doesn’t. We’re all looking for reassurance on our way of being.

Social media platforms understand this. They make money by giving us more of what we engage with – pictures, article links, videos and that occasional advertisement. Their algorithms study our online behavior and give us more of what we want to see – either content uploaded or shared by people within our networks or through sponsored and paid content that aligns with our thinking. In this new ‘attention economy’ all they want us to do is to keep scrolling, clicking and sharing.

That’s all good, until we see the trade-off. When we’re being fed more of what we want to see, we’re seeing less of other views, contrary to our own, creating ‘filter bubbles’ so closely tailored and personalized it keeps out all the content that may run contrary to our opinions or broaden or challenge our worldview. Every time we click on a link with a headline baiting us, we like or share information without double-checking the source or verifying its accuracy, we’re willing participants in this war on information. Once we’ve inadvertently shared a misleading or fabricated article, image, video or meme, the next person who sees it in their social media feed, who probably trusts us, goes on to share it themselves. When we see multiple messages about the same topic, our brains use that as a short-cut to credibility. It must be true we say – I’ve seen that same claim several times today.

What does this mean for brands and communication today?

We’re operating in an environment where there’s a breakdown of trust. Between governments and people, organisations and people and there just isn’t enough regulation of how much content and propaganda is shaping opinions. We’re seeing businesses become less bold, less daring in this environment of unpredictability. If you’re a CEO and wake up every morning unsure of your share price because of a twitter-match between the US and North Korea, you’re unlikely to be able to make long term strategic decisions. Here’s how good, old-fashioned public relations can help as long as we have the skills, the intent and the grit to see it through:

1. Build your brand with purpose: When people understand what you stand for, why you exist and your purpose in their lives, they’re more likely to question or challenge a piece of fake news that stands contrary to what they believe is how you operate.

2. Employees first, everyone else can queue: If your people don’t believe in the organizational purpose, if it’s not the core reason that attracted them to work with you, no amount of marketing spend can help build you allies externally in an authentic way.

3. Choose your brand ambassadors carefully: In this highly vocal, activist oriented environment of social media, brands choosing the right people to be its ‘face’ can earn plaudits, and the wrong ones can be pulled down dramatically. Being purposeful also means choosing the right people to hire and work with, not just those who are image-conscious but really committed to the cause or issue.

Your ‘trust piggy-bank’ can never be too full

Be good to your people, build relations with stakeholders and invest in your communities online. Goodwill has never gone out of fashion, it’s just the scale is different. When fake news strikes, regardless of whether your own systems and monitoring processes catch it, you’re stronger when the community rises to counter it.

Girish Balachandran is Managing Partner at ON PURPOSE, a communications consultancy formed to drive social change in India. You can reach him at @Girisham1 and read more about ON PURPOSE at www.onpurposeconsulting.in

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Girish Balachandran

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