The success of both BREXIT and Trump tells us that the world is changing. Their triumphs mark a transformation of the public’s mood, which is causing the rules governing media schmoozing and managing relations with the masses to be rewritten, as fast as the authority of existing elites evaporates.
Corporations are nearly always slow to respond. As of today, most corporations and public institutions remain wedded to a discredited formula for managing their images and communication strategies. But before I outline how they need to revise their PR premises to benefit from the mass public’s re-engagement in public life, let’s review a few relevant insights that I’ve fathomed from the victories of President Trump and BREXIT.
During the election campaign, Hilary Clinton labelled Trump supporters as ‘deplorables‘. The use of the word deplorable to describe millions of voters revealed that the establishment views its revolting opponents as being incorrigible, and therefore in some way illegitimate, and not deserving of having a voice in the running of the country. Since Trump became POTUS, the propaganda campaign to delegitimatise him and his supporters has become ever more virulent.
Trump, we are told, is a fascist. He is also Putin’s poodle, a Holocaust denier, racist bigot, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, misogynist, post-factual, fake news monger. But what could be more post-factual, more divorced from real news, and more daft, than dubbing Trump fascist? It beggars belief that a President of a country that treasures free speech and places severe legal and political restrictions on even his ability to impose travel bans can be compared to Hitler’s Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s fascist Italy in the 1930s.
What could be more absurd than the conspiracy theorists’ claim that Putin’s cyber hackers and fake news makers had a material impact on the outcome of the US election? As even CNN accepts, no evidence of Russia hacking the voting system and fixing it for Trump has been found.
In reality, Trump’s supporters get the fact that explaining the outcome of the US election as being a consequence of anything but their rationally-made choices, insults 63 million people who consciously voted for him. Their choice may not have been my choice, the Donald does not appeal to me, but theirs was not a vote for the caricatured version of Trump that the media and his political opponents relentlessly convey.
Meanwhile, every time Trump makes a ‘fool of himself’ by saying something ‘off colour’ or ‘post-factual’ or undiplomatic his support goes up. Whenever he gets attacked for giving glib performances and for the content of his late-night Tweets, his supporters are reminded of the fact he’s not one of the professional politicians they detest. They get the impression that Trump is an authentic, passionate, change-maker driven by belief, rather than a plastic establishment politician manufactured by the masters of spin.
The politically correct consensus, the one that says you can’t say this or that and that the status quo is immutable, has taken a bashing. There is, I suggest, no turning back. These are shifts of historical significance.
If I may draw a more meaningful historical parallel than the 1930s, it reminds me of the 1980s when Thatcher and Regan stormed the post-war, Cold War barricades. They too got called fascist. In the UK, Prime Minister Thatcher broke the cozy post-war tripartite consensus between the employers, the trade unions and the state. She did so by unilaterally making bold changes. Then to win support for her policies, she spoke directly to trade union members over the heads of their leaders, while bypassing the employers.
Thatcher – besides recklessly damaging some useful institutional reputations – ripped apart the creepy relationship that had formed between employers and trade union bigwigs. But, in fact, remote union leaders had already lost touch with their members, much the same way the media have lost their hold over their readers today. So, when Trump humiliates the media in the USA by removing their place at the top table and, more profoundly, by refusing to make the media’s agenda his own, they might howl, but vast sections of the public cheer or don’t care.
In many ways, Trump follows in the footsteps of Tony Blair, George Bush and Hilary Clinton in being a so-called Post Truth politician. Let’s not forget how Blair and Bush justified the Iraq war on the back of a dodgy dossier. Blair recategorized public spending as investment, merely because it sounded better, even though it was dishonest. Anybody, like me, who has had to counter NGOs such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth has always known that they possess a very fragile relationship with or commitment to the truth.
To see how much the modern elites have lost touch with the public, one only need cast a quick eye at BREXIT. In the UK virtually every significant public institution and politician was for Remain. They were shaken by the vote for BREXIT because it made visible the terrifying truth that the views of elite society, mediated by the media, command a rapidly declining influence over mass public opinion.
So, what can modern corporations and institutions learn from all this? Not, I suggest, that they must mould themselves to every prejudice and popular mood of the moment. Nor that they must become Trump-like and undiplomatic, egotistical or slightly immature in how they speak about themselves and the world. But corporations do need to acknowledge that there is a new Zeitgeist. This new mood, I maintain, calls for them to recast how they communicate; not just the means, but also the content.
Firms seem to me to be at great risk of spinning themselves as friends of their customers and societies. That’s a ploy which assumes that the public is permanently infantalised. It is a ploy which is failing: Southern Rail is hated by its employees and customers alike; banks pretend to reward the virtues of their customers in wholly phoney ways; phone and broadband companies and insurers can’t find a way to reward loyalty and prefer to pander to gaming best-rate tarts like me.
In the age of a reactivated mass public, now is the time when, once again, corporations can become true to themselves. Now is the time to ditch Beyond Petroleum-type posturing and apologise, reform and move on (ARM) PR, and other politically correct attempts at formulating NGO, celebrity and media pleasing agendas. Now is the time to start speaking plain robust truths about the realities of whatever business or institution one is in.
One practice that needs curtailing is the rarely questioned outsourcing of corporate reputations to UN and civil society campaigning organisations. The traditional logic has been that because NGOs had the media’s trust, they had by default the public’s trust because the public’s perception of reality was shaped by the media. But BREXIT and Trump made transparent how flimsy such assumptions are.
In today’s nascent brave new world, corporations and institutions have the space to defend themselves directly, as opposed to relying on third-party imprimatur; better known in the PR trade as a social license to operate. In other words, garnering endorsement from NGOs and positive headlines in the media, and securing praise from the celebrities they gloat over, should no longer be used to calibrate the corporate communication compass.
By radically changing how and what they communicate with the public, corporations and institutions could regain their integrity and sense of self worth. Doing so demands that they become more candid, much less apologetic and much more ambitious. May be, just may be, if that happens, the public will once again begin to trust what is communicated by corporations and public institutions because it is authentic and relevant.