Can Brands Handle the Post-Truth? 5 Questions With PR Vet Jennifer Shah


Wendy's Fresh Never Frozen tweet

The Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” as the word of 2016, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Jennifer Shah, SVP & Partner, Digital & Marketing Communications at FleishmanHillard Canada, wrote in a blog post titled, “Are we really now living in a ‘post-truth’ world?” that “good stories should not come at the sacrifice of facts. Definitely not in politics, and certainly not in communications.”

She elaborates in our latest “5 Questions With” Q&A:

brandchannel: Jennifer, how do you define the post-truth era—and what does it mean for brands?

Jennifer Shah - FleishmanHillardShah: “Post-Truth” is defined as circumstances where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals or personal beliefs. When I think of this in terms of brands, I immediately picture Mad Men and Don Draper (complete with cocktail and cigarette) telling his client Lucky Strike that the recent link to tobacco and cancer is “the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal because… everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous but Lucky Strike’s is toasted.”

Like many Mad Men references, this was actually rooted in reality. Lucky Strike introduced “It’s toasted to taste better” as early as 1917, and kept it throughout the decades to make dubious health claims, even as the negative health impacts of cigarettes became more widely reported. While the post-truth movement may be more subtle today, the damage is just as real.

bc: What makes for an authentic brand communications today—and can you give us an example?

Shah: Wendy’s is a great example. Recently they were faced with a negative customer on Twitter who was challenging their claim that their beef is fresh and never frozen. The customer went on to berate them, their claims, question how their food was transported, and even compare them to one of their largest competitors, McDonald’s. Wendy’s responded via social media with a witty, direct takedown of the user’s claims, which remained true to their voice with just the right amount of sass.

Wendy’s wasn’t claiming to be the healthiest; it wasn’t saying that their burgers would make you smarter, richer, or more beautiful. They had a real, true claim: that their burgers are never made from beef that is frozen. While this may not be the most exciting claim, it was a truthful one and Wendy’s was able to seize the moment and do a lot with it when the opportunity arose.

bc: As consumer awareness of (and demand for) transparency and visibility is something every brand must make a priority, how can brands establish that transparency and build trust?

Shah: Here are three key pillars:

1) Find something unique or central to who they are as a brand. Not every organization is trailblazing or has an innovation funnel that can dazzle the world. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say. Every group or brand has a secret sauce: a unique combination that makes it appealing to its customers.

2) Say it loudly and proudly. Again and again. We’re regularly exposed to an onslaught of information. Brands can’t assume that just because they said it once, everyone now knows. The content should be consistent and continually placed to get in front of audiences. The message should evolve and be optimized for different platforms. Consider a brand like Tom’s. They’ve done an excellent job at communicating a single minded proposition across a wide variety of media, while at the same time evolving new business lines that complement that theme.

3) Listen to what people say and use it. Social media is perhaps the single greatest focus group ever invented, yet still today many organizations treat it as a broadcast mechanism and don’t listen or gauge the reactions of their audiences. Trolls aside, there is good intel to be had on social channels. Transparency in communication is most impactful when it’s two way: companies sharing their stories to impact their customers, and customers impacting those companies with their stories.

bc: What about the role of consumers, who are wary and confused, given the proliferation of fake news on social and digital channels?

Shah: Savvy consumers are already skeptical, and those most susceptible to post-truth communications will soon begin to experience the consequences of this subpar information.

Already we’ve seen major media outlets debating the fake news phenomenon, and platforms themselves are taking the issue seriously. Perhaps no one has felt the wrath of this more than Facebook and they’ve been in reaction mode for several weeks.

The responsibility will still be on users to validate and verify what they read – which means that fake news isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You’ll just be seeing less of it as platforms like Facebook strive to control its distribution.

What does that means for brands? People will be watching and waiting for them to screw up. Some will be called out for it publicly, causing damage to their reputation for years to come. But many will also get away with it—for now.

One thing that’s certain about the internet though? It never forgets. The repercussions of faking it will be felt for years to come.

bc: How can agencies be a part of that process and how do you see the role of PR evolving in 2017 and beyond?

Shah: It is our role as communication experts and agency counselors to help a brand find its best stories and tell them better – not to disregard the facts because we want an easy win. We need to work with what the brand offers, what is unique to the organization, its product or its founders to create that emotional connection, and that powerful story. And then we need to tell that story everywhere.

We need to ensure that by adhering to our own personal beliefs we can sway public opinion by relying on the facts rather than dismissing them. This is the only thing that will stand up to the scrutiny of those searching for the perpetrators of fake news and the casualties that result. Most importantly it’s the only way to protect your brand and its reputation in the long run.

Get more branding insights in our Q&A series