Truth and lies

Truth’s been having a hard time of it

Journalists and critics have been locked up, beaten up, blown up and worse. The facts around scary things like the Skripal poisoning, chemical attacks in Syria, the disappearing journo in Turkey, assassinations in Pakistan are disputed and murky. Story and counter story abound.

Nobody admits culpability. In the bid to preserve reputations truth gets lost.

How do you know what’s true? How can you believe what you’re being told? Do you trust the news? Do you trust the label? Are you willing to bet your life on it?

We are swamped with alternative narratives – some of them specifically designed to confuse. (This is called gaslightinggreat podcast here if you are interested).

Russian state sponsored assassins are nothing of the sort, just a couple of shy male companions with an insatiable interest in spires. Brexit dividends do – or don’t – exist. Unemployment is at a record low, but fewer people than ever are in steady jobs. Kim Jong Un is a dangerously unstable threat – or the best next hope for perpetual peace. This chicken was reared by farmers who ‘share our values’.

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
George Orwell, 1984

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But Big Brother’s not watching you any more, he’s just spinning you a line

By trying to filter what we’re told, and what we hear, and by extension, what we think and believe, the folk behind the narratives want to exercise some form of control, to create some kind of orthodoxy. Thinking for us, so we don’t have to.

“Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
George Orwell, 1984

We Brits should not go around thinking this is the behaviour of dictators and autocrats in far away lands. Here in the UK there’s a brewing shitstorm over the nasty effects of “universal credit” – a wheeze dreamt up to simplify the job of government whilst paying less money to people who deserve it. The tales of misery are mounting as it is “rolled out” – leaving needy people without food on their plates and roofs over their heads. The Minister responsible for it now, Esther McVey, has issued contracts to charities and organisations working with the recipients of universal credit which includes a “publicity” clause:

the organisations “shall pay the utmost regard to the standing” of the secretary of state, and “shall not do anything which may damage her; bring her into disrepute; attract adverse publicity to her; or harm the confidence of the public in her”.

Um – so not say anything other than lovely things about Esther whilst millions of people suffer under her watch.

Much smarter to embrace the criticism

Trying to manage reputation in this way is at best counterproductive and more likely to blow up in your face. The fragmentation of media means that attempting to control a narrative has become impossible. Sometimes – in the face of facts turfed up by people like Bellingcat – sticking to a nonsense story can make you look silly.

This is where the world of politicians and brands coincide again. For a very long time the operating system for brands was only and all about control. “Brand management” meant ruthless consistency, relentless adherence to a pre-prepared mantra. It was all designed to drum home what we were supposed to think. To make brand preference unconscious – pre-programmed not something we think about.

That meant establishing and promulgating a set of “truths” that were absolutely beyond question:

  • VW makes the most reliable cars
  • Apple is design genius
  • Dyson products are vastly superior category reinventions
  • McKinsey consultants are smarter than anyone else

But that kind of control just isn’t possible nowadays. Neither brands, nor autocrats, nor DWP ministers can stop people talking no matter how hard they try. It makes them look petty at worst and underlines weakness at best.

This is not to say that engaging with detractors is easy or smart either. Check out the Dyson airblade is shit episode of a few years back.

But seeking to fashion a world that does not even recognise that criticism exists just isn’t a viable strategy whether you’re a brand or a politician.

There are precious few brands nowadays that would even dare to attempt such rigidity. Apple is one of them.

I’m not sure it’s working any more. Despite immense efforts to keep their staff ‘aligned’ (or better schtum), a singular communications message (product, product, product), the barest nod towards social media, they still can’t shut out the dissent. Keeping quiet doesn’t stop people talking about you – ask the Royal Family. Or look at the comments on Apple’s Facebook page.

Apple may be the biggest brand on the planet but the way it behaves is properly old school. Trouble awaits.

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Strong brands need detractors. Maybe strong leaders need detractors too.

Brands that aren’t obsessively controlling are all the stronger for it. In fact brands that allow for some dissent always seem to perform better than the bland “for everyone” brands (b2b brands should take note). One of my early clients was an airline whose brand was very pleasant and inoffensive to everybody. They didn’t stand a chance. They were up against a new influx of like-em or loathe-em polarising brands like Virgin Atlantic or Ryanair, both of whom maintained a steady 20% of people who could not stand them.

The one stand out example of a politico who really, really gets this is Trump.

His brand needs, in fact could not survive without, criticism and dissent.

He needs the “failing New York Times” to fire up his base. He needs the oxygen of criticism to deepen his support. He turns dissent into advantage.

And his brand is much, much stronger for it. So perhaps there really is some method there….

Return of integrity?

And maybe there’s an even stronger formula emerging – one that is grown up enough to acknowledge dissent but also not childish enough to foster it.

After the heady hyperbole of the late 20th Century, and the divisive name calling of the fake news era, maybe it’s time to get (back) to brands and leaders that are unashamed of what they think and believe, but equally humble enough to listen to criticism.

Good growth brands. Doing what they do because they believe it to be right. Open and engaging. Humble.

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