Review: The Post-Truth Business

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

The Post-Truth Business: How to rebuild brand authenticity in a distrusting world
Sean Pillot de Chenecey
2019, Kogan Page, 284 pages

Capitalism is in crisis. Culture to the rescue?

We’re living in a media landscape where the truth is deliberately manipulated, trust has been catastrophically devalued and organized misinformation is a growth business.

The dictionary definition of post-truth is ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

We surely recognise the problem. But who is to blame for it?

The author talks us through the usual suspects: politicians seeking to divide and rule; the echo chamber of social media; weakened news media; the replacement of party politics by identity politics. But what of marketing? He acknowledges that advertisers have long understood that emotion wins over reason. 

Is marketing part of the problem – or could it be part of the solution?

To unpick this question, Pillot de Chenecey (a well-informed marketing researcher and strategist) walks us through the question of privacy. Some people – and some countries – are highly mistrustful of the ways their personal data can be used. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is an attempt to push back at the retention and use of personal data. But many others are very relaxed about sharing their personal data, even after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica and the use of Facebook data for targeted political advertising.

Again, it looks like marketing is part of the problem.

Certainly, the author talks of the growing disconnection between consumers and brands. ‘It’s clear that adland has a problem.’ 

So what’s the way forward? Rather than bombarding consumers with unwanted ads, the author proposes several ways to build ‘connections with meaning’, revolving around brand storytelling and brand purpose.

He cites the #FearlessGirl campaign, created by McCann Erickson in New York, that attracted global attention and which was a stunt to promote an investment fund that invests in companies with female presence at senior leadership levels. Among its industry awards was ‘best outdoor’, ‘best PR’, ‘best in gender equality’ showing how hard it is to disentangle advertising from public relations. Yet the campaign ‘was created on a shoestring budget with no paid media’.

He discusses the trend for brands to use influencers for user-generated marketing. Increasingly, this is happening using ‘dark social’ channels such as WhatsApp that are invisible to monitoring and tracking software.

‘Things’ are becoming less prized as they can be easily bought online, meaning that retailers need to focus on experiences and become, in effect, leisure destinations.

Brands themselves can no longer be built on fantasy, but need to prove their value in people’s lives, described here as ‘brand with soul’ (or ‘emotionally-led communication’).

Brands matter hugely. But primarily, it’s the ones that we trust and have an emotional relationship with, and who tell their stories via powerful stories [sic], that will gain and retain our loyalty. It sounds so self-evident, so obvious as to be almost not worth saying, until you consider the omnipresent deluge of brand communication that consistently fails to be ‘motivating, engaging and relevant.’

There’s a warning. Authentic communication cannot be a marketing strategy or it will ‘come across as manufactured – the opposite to authentic’. It needs to be the business strategy.

There’s also a paradox that’s explored here. In the words of Martin Raymond of The Future Laboratory: ‘it’s interesting that advertising, one of the great capitalist drivers of the marketplace, has gone from being about the individual and self and creating moments of self-doubt, to one that is about fulfilment through community, collaboration and social involvement.’

Put differently, can the champions of consumption now become champions of anti-consumption, given the urgent need to reduce environmental destruction?

The author cites every marketer’s favourite example of ‘conspicuous altruism’ – the outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia. What’s revealing is that it’s not just a marketing strategy aimed at customers, but it starts with a ‘brand positive’ workplace culture. ‘Patagonia seem to take the approach that if they look after their staff in the same manner they do their customers, their staff will be happier, and that action will be noticed by the customers, which will strengthen their brand engagement – a perfect circle.’

We seem to have reached the high-water mark for a winner-takes-all form of capitalism that led to the dominance of global brands and mass-production. Instead, many consumers are expressing a preference for local ‘artisan’ and ‘craft’ products.  

This may be anti-corporate, but it’s not anti-capitalist. Just look how Brewdog has grabbed the headlines as a champion of the craft beer movement while expanding its brand and building a well-backed business (selling shares to a private equity business). How long before Brewdog in turn becomes the ever-present brand that consumers and competitors will react against?

This book argues that culture holds the key to repurposing capitalism.

Brands that are genuine, have integrity, talk in honest terms, play a role in society that provides their consumers [sic], respect the culture within which they operate and demonstrate commitment via purpose-led branding to show that they’re essentially ‘on our side’ are the ones that will continue to grow – because if you’re not authentic then you’re not genuine. In a post-truth world, linking with culture must be about adding value and being authentic.

The language is about brands and the focus is on advertising. This will appeal to some in public relations, but many will want to frame this as a reflection on reputation in an age of distrust.

What’s useful is to see how a critical insider takes an intelligent, informed and sceptical look at his own industry. This reminds me of the Robert Phillips book Trust Me, PR is Dead from 2015.

We’ll have to wait for the forthcoming book by Gareth Thompson for a thorough investigation of the implications of disintformation and post-truth on public relations.