The ‘post-truth’ lesson every corporate innovator must learn

by | News

For iconoclasts, it has been a year of heady hoopla. For the established order, it has been a wake-up call like no other. Citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, in Europe, and beyond, are only just beginning to understand the implications.

The UK Referendum and US Presidential campaigns have created volatility in the transatlantic political sphere, unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.

For professional communicators, it has been a uniquely troubling period. Both campaigns have set a worrying new normal when it comes to stakeholder dialogue. Those of us who have spent careers building understanding and shared meaning have seen divisive, inflammatory language engulf the national conversation. Discord has displaced dialogue. Meanwhile, our Fourth Estate is failing us. Established media brands are more partisan than ever while the fake news industry grows at an alarming rate. The values of transparency and trust to which we all aspire appear to have lost public currency. Rumours of the death of spin were premature, it seems. It was just hibernating and has now emerged a hungry, even uglier beast.

This time it’s different

Now it is official; we are living in an era of ‘post-truth’. After dominating the zeitgeist for much of the last 12 months, Oxford Dictionaries, guardian of the OED and lexicographer of record, has hailed it as its word of the year

Post-truth; relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

It’s a charitable definition, which fails to address the particular brazenness of political lying that we have witnessed. But putting that aside, this dictionary definition should give us one positive pause for thought. It may be the word of the year, but 2016’s seismic shift in political narrative has uncovered an ancient truth. The lesson to modern corporate communicators is this. If you are serious about driving change, ‘appeals to emotion and personal belief’ really, really, matter.

Emotion in the organisation

Organisational communicators have traditionally shied away from emotion. You see, feelings don’t power the professional organisation. Rational debate drives corporate decision-making. Pragmatism, objectivity and logic – these are the default settings. Organisational communications should reflect the sobriety and the seriousness of the process. Not get all… emotional. Right?

Well, the trouble with that approach is that you’ll never inspire people to do anything different. And in times of continuous change and an ever greater need for corporate innovation, that is a problem.

When we want to communicate change, or inspire innovation, we cannot rely only on facts. OK, facts help us set the context. We need objective data to build theses. We need proof points to support and corroborate our claims. But facts on their own will get us nowhere.

Because as much as our post-enlightenment brains like to self-identify as rational, we are deeply emotional creatures. We are much more engaged by the possible than by the provable. The incredible will always be more interesting than the incontrovertible.

We need to make an emotional connection with what could happen in the future before we take rational direction on what we need to do next. To make things happen, we need to feel our way there. We’ll go with our gut and only then employ our rational minds to justify that visceral prejudice. Facts are not the workout fuel of decision-making. They are the recovery shake that helps repair our strained cognitive biases. 

Great communicators understand that only an emotively-derived narrative can inspire positive, transformative change. Only by creating that emotional connection to a common purpose can a leader lead. Great leaders are also very clear about their point of view. They make their hopes and beliefs inseparable from organisational purpose. Their personal investment in change is unmistakable.

It has long been central to brand marketing and advertising, but innovative organisations must build emotion into their corporate stories. As Inditex (Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, etc.) CEO, Pablo Isla, recently told the Harvard Business Review, “I’m gradually learning to be less rational and more emotional. We need to appeal to employees’ emotions to help create an environment where they can innovate.”

Of course, authenticity and an understanding of the audience are essential. An emotional narrative built on a questionable premise may succeed in winning short term support. But a clumsy (or worst still, cynical) manipulation of bias will never drive sustainable change or lasting success. In dishonest hands, an emotive narrative will wreak havoc, wherever it is employed.

But after a bruising political year, and with continued uncertainty ahead, we’ve had a timely reminder of an eternal truth; there is nothing quite like emotion to galvanise and drive change. Organisational communicators who can harness and channel it – authentically and responsibly – will unlock its extraordinary transformative power.