Emergency manual for post-truth times.
A few days before Christmas 1953, the main executives of the most important tobacco companies of the United States met at the Plaza Hotel in New York with John Hill. Hill was the director of Hill and Knowlton, a Public Relations agency. More than a work meeting, this was a crisis cabinet.
A year earlier, Reader’s Digest magazine had published an article titled “Cancer by Cardboards”. Thanks to it, American readers had become aware, for the first time, of the relationship between tobacco and lung cancer.
That publication was followed by many others. The tobacco industry faced the most serious challenge in its history and reacted.
In 2017, in a report, the Financial Times revealed the communication plan that John Hill designed so that cigarette manufacturers could overcome that existential threat. Even today, this strategy is still being studied in the best Business Schools all over the world.
What was this strategy, that prevented the bankruptcy of the tobacco sector?
The British newspaper lists some guidelines that have proven to be as cynical as effective:
- First, when a serious reputation problem appears, be sensitive to it and share the public’s concern.
- After a while, you must complicate the matter, and start sowing doubts. Perhaps the cause of this problem lies with a third party, it may not all be the fault of the company or the sector attacked.
- The third step is to fight back. Challenge and question information that goes against one’s interest. Give equal value to rigorous studies than to other studies that are not so rigorous. The public gives the same credit to sources they do not know.
- Lastly, you must normalize. Trivialize. Take the complaint for granted and require the journalists to talk about other things, demand that they talk about other areas or other sectors.
These guidelines are familiar to us today. Their stark amorality raises a crucial question. The question of whether there may be limits that we are ready to cross, in any case. We may be forced to choose between reputation and survival. This choice would not only be technical. It would be, first and foremost, moral.
Therefore, it is convenient to be prepared to incorporate an ethical dimension into our work, our profession, which is more necessary today than ever.
The Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as the word of the year 2016. According to this dictionary, the term is used to refer to those circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than calls to emotions and personal beliefs.
2,500 years ago, in his treatise on Rhetoric, Aristotle said that effective communication is the result of a very fragile balance between three components:
- The first is the logic of the speech itself, that is, the consistency of the arguments that are given and the strength of the reasoning.
- The second is the credibility of the source: its authority and legitimacy, which derives from the intention to persuade with facts and honest arguments.
- And the third is the empathy between the speaker and the listener. It is the field of emotions and feelings. It is the most delicate component, due to the tendence of confusing the facts, in their actual manner, with facts in the manner we would like them to be.
According to Aristotle, rhetoric is a neutral art. Well used, it is an instrument for knowledge and for justice. But when it is intentionally inclined towards the third of its components, it places itself at the service of demagoguery. So, it is not about the tools, but about the use we make of them.
Therefore, please allow me to correct the definition in the Oxford dictionary. Post-truth is not about shaping public opinion through emotions, which has always happened, but about using emotions to shape a public opinion that is far from the truth.
Let’s be clear: Truth and post-truth are opposite concepts. Resorting to emotions in order to construct a false image of reality is an outstanding feature of post-truth, outstandingly unacceptable.
This ethical component, that the Oxford dictionary omits, is what I consider central to understanding what is happening in our time.
We may be forced to choose between reputation and survival. This choice will not only be technical. It will be, first and foremost, moral.
Why is it possible to sway public opinion by misrepresenting the facts and appealing to emotions?
The explanation that I propose contemplates two types of reasons, which I am going to call external and internal. External reasons have to do with what stands between us and reality.
Let us remember a controversy that took place in the United States mass media in 2017. The White House and the media close to the new president maintained that the ceremony of his proclamation had been the most attended in history. Other media presented an image, which very soon went viral, showing two photographs of the public gathered on the National Mall, in front of the Capitol, during both proclamations. Obama’s, in 2008, and Trump’s, that year.
There were far more people in Obama’s proclamation than in Trump’s. And yet those photos did not make anyone change their mind.
For Trump’s voters and his team, the sources that posted the montage were not reliable. For these people, the New York Times, the Washington Post or CNN are factories of fake news. On the other hand, for the readers of these three headlines, and for their newsrooms, media such as Breitbart, Fox News or the New York Post are the true factories of fake news.
Why is such a marked divergence in the way of perceiving the facts possible?
We all access an important part of reality through third parties. We need to trust others to know the world and what surrounds us. Otherwise, our universe would be narrow and miserable.
Therefore, a first reason, external to each of us, that allows post-truth to appear, is that we do not have direct access to most of reality, but only through those we trust. And, sometimes, we can make the mistake of placing our trust in someone who does not deserve it.
The second external reason why emotions may confuse us, and mask reality, is language.
Consider this sentence: “Ronaldo is taller than Messi.” Now let’s consider this other sentence: “Ronaldo is better than Messi”
From a grammatical point of view, the two sentences are exactly the same. They are both correct and their structures are identical. However, one reports a fact and the other an opinion. Language does not incorporate marks in the sentences, so that we can easily distinguish between one thing and the other.
One solution would be that, when we give our opinion, we make it clear. For example, saying: “I think that…” or “I believe that…”. But language tends to spare means, and on behalf of practicality, we often skip this clarification.
That Ronaldo is taller than Messi is a fact, that can be verified with a measuring tape, and with which anyone who understands what it means to “be taller than” will agree.
On the other hand, that Ronaldo is better than Messi is not a type of phrase that is making an exact description of the world. There is no way to verify it, and many people are convinced that Messi is better, much better, than Ronaldo. Myself, for instance.
What I want to make clear with this example is that language is an imperfect tool. The imperfection of the language is what allows poetry, literature, the richness of a conversation and the possibility of saying new and unexpected things. But it also enables confusion, imprecision, self-interested use of words, and post-truth.
In addition to these two external reasons, there are also internal reasons that explain why we can make a mistake when perceiving reality. These internal reasons are the biases that baffle our understanding of things. I will illustrate this point with an example:
In Barcelona I have a friend named Juan. Juan is a 50-year-old man. He usually wears turtleneck sweaters and corduroy pants. He likes tidiness very much and speaks little. Wears reading glasses. Whenever I meet him, he carries a book under his arm . If I asked you to tell me if Juan is a librarian or a taxi driver, what would you answer me? Most would say librarian. But if you think about it carefully, you might change the answer.
Because it is easy to assume that, in a city like Barcelona, the number of taxi drivers can be 20 times greater than the number of librarians. And considering that the traits I have given you about Juan are rather conventional, you will conclude that it is much more likely that he is a taxi driver than a librarian. Even if he has glasses and a book in his hand. A book that will surely be a city guide or a best-seller that he bought at the airport, while waiting for a client.
We think, and make decisions, based on stereotypes, false arguments, prejudices, and half-truths.
If I told you that a vaccine saves 300 people out of a thousand, you would have a more favourable idea of it than if I had told you that this vaccine does not save 700 patients out of a thousand.
Even highly intelligent people are prone to irrational thinking. In general, we all tend to make judgments, based on intuition rather than reason. Scientists have listed nearly 200 biases in our reasoning that disrupt when interpreting the world. And it is precisely each of those biases that function as privileged access doors to post-truth practices.
- We access reality through third parties.
- Language is imprecise and leads to confusion.
- Our understanding of things is conditioned by biases that we do not control.
But, despite all this, reality is not subject to interpretation. And the facts are the facts. They do not depend on our beliefs or our interests.
Perhaps we are living in post-truth times because one day we decided that everything was relative, and we stopped believing in the truth. We said that the truth does not exist, and it has taken revenge, sending us a substitute that is, in turn, sarcasm.
Ultimately, truth and post-truth are eminently moral concepts.
We’ve talked about post-truth so far. The second part of this post has to do with reputation.
I will try to answer two questions: First: Is it really important to manage our reputation? And second: How is reputation managed, in post-truth times?
Is it really important to manage our reputation?
Not necessarily. There are several reasons that, at the very least, should make us think about the true extent of our company’s reputation.
First of all, we must realize that reputation does not belong to us. We have it because they give it to us. But it is not ours. Here, once again, language plays a trick on us. We say that one has a reputation. This company has a very good reputation, or that one has a terrible reputation. And yet, reputation is always what others say about us. The fact that reputation doesn’t really belong to us makes it much more difficult to work on. Reputation can also mean one thing and its opposite at the same time.
A low-cost airline may have a reputation for being the cheapest, which is good, and being the most late, which is bad. If the public believes that price is more important than punctuality, the company will have a chance to succeed, even if its customers despise it.
The corporate world is full of examples like this, where reputation and public favour seem to go their separate ways. Despite the emissions scandal, Volkswagen sold more cars in 2016 than ever. Despite the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP did not see its business volume decrease.
The fact is that losing the reputation, be it good or bad, costs more than we think. This is so because nobody likes to admit that they have been wrong.
Warren Buffet once said, “It takes more than 20 years to earn a good reputation, but it takes 5 minutes to ruin it.” Although I have great admiration for Mr. Buffet, I believe that in this case he is wrong. Reputation is resilient by nature.
If we buy a BMW because we think it is a great car, we will find the experience of driving it wonderful. Anyone who spends $ 50,000 on a car needs to believe that he or she has not made a mistake. So, every time someone buys a BMW, the brand’s reputation is increasingly consolidated.
So far, some of the reasons why we must be cautious when considering the management of our reputation, and careful when using the concept itself. But if we agree, as a basic definition, that reputation is what others say about us, it is legitimate, as a company, to hope that the others that speak about us are many, and that what they say is good.
I am going to explain why. Earlier I referred to Aristotle. Let’s go back to Greece for a moment.
Kleós is a term that appears many times in the Iliad, and which has been translated as “reputation”. Sometimes also as “fame” or “glory”. The meaning of kleós has to do with two things.
The reputation is granted, first of all, by the facts; in this case, due to heroic deeds of the protagonists of the epic.
But the facts are not enough. What builds a good reputation is that these facts are forged, remembered, sung, transmitted, and admired over time.
The Homeric heroes looked for the kleós. But fame, glory and reputation had value, always, because they referred to reality: heroic deeds, in battles, or ingenious solutions to challenges. A reputation without facts was nonsense to the Greek language. Just as it was nonsense to think of a reputation based on facts that was not “sung”, that is, communicated, and that was not to become the object of admiration by the public.
In post-truth times, however, it is easy to fall into the temptation of considering a good reputation as an asset, as a one-off resource that any company should pursue and achieve in the fast lane, as an end in itself.
Rather than an asset, I want to propose that we consider reputation as a proxy, that is, as an explicit but supervening signal that we are doing the things that really matter well.
The weekly The Economist published an article on reputation a few years ago, in which reference was made to the English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill.
Stuart Mill argued, in his autobiography, that the most direct way to happiness was not to consider it an ultimate end, but to focus attention and effort elsewhere. This philosopher thought that happiness was the accidental product of working towards a more valuable goal. As with happiness, the best strategy for managing your reputation is most likely to spend little time thinking about it.
Because, as a matter of fact, it is much easier to work on the reputation of a company when it focuses on what is truly important: taking care of its customers, giving them the best treatment and offering products and services of the highest quality; in having the best staff; in innovating, and in competing in the market with honesty and within an ethical framework of responsibility.
When a good PR or Communication agency works with these types of companies, things are much easier for everyone.
Post-truth times will pass, and companies will be held accountable not for the intensity of their public relations, but for their effort to serve their customers well.
André Gide wrote that important things need to be repeated over and over again, because when they were said, no one was listening.
To say that reputation has no shortcuts is a common sense truth. It has been formulated, since ancient times, in many different ways. But even so, before any other, this would be the only guideline that my emergency manual would contain for these post-truth times.
 A very similar example is found in the book “Think fast, think slowly” by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. Kahneman has highlighted the importance of irrational elements in judgment and how cognitive biases condition our understanding of the world.