Reputation in a post‑truth age

In case you missed it, apparently we’re now in a post-truth age. 

An age where facts and experts are shunned in favour of hyped up rhetoric and emotional reaction to well-orchestrated controversy. The champions of this new age are found in the political arena. Depending on who you speak to, Donald Tump, Brexiteers or even Jeremy Corbyn are leading the charge by tapping into the feeling of the masses to further their own agendas and ambitions. 

If this really is the case, then they had better get ready for some shocks down the line. Post-truth tactics may have helped them rise up on a wave of populist approval but, like the fabled Icarus, they may soon find themselves falling quickly back down to earth. 

In other words they’re in for a Reputation reality check

If a career in reputation management has taught me anything, it’s that what we actually do has more of an impact on our reputation than whatever we might say. Whether you try and spin the facts, tell some half-truths, or ignore them completely, ultimately you will be judged by your actions, not what you said you would do. 

When you begin to move away from facts you create a gap between your rhetoric and reality. This creates a chasm between what people believe about you and what is true about you. Unless addressed quickly, these gaps can grow and grow and require more and more effort to close, which may only serve to make them bigger.

Until the day comes when you are called to account for your actions and you hit a reputation reality check. 

BHS, VW, the entire financial industry in 2007. All of these hit reputation reality checks, and were publically called to account. In the case of the financial industry the reality check was so severe it caused deep-set mistrust amongst a new generation of customers. 

So back to perhaps the best example of a post-truth politician – Donald Trump

Talk may be cheap but if you say enough you run up a mighty bill and Trump’s political campaign has been built on talk. His rhetoric is based on eliciting emotional responses whilst criticising established sources of ‘truth’. In one breath he will say something controversial, question those who may challenge him and rally people to his cause.

If, and it’s a big if, Trump can keep his wave of momentum going, and ends up behind the desk in the oval office, suddenly he will have to act.  Throughout his campaign, he has set the level of expectation so high, and made so many empty promises, it could all come quickly crashing down around him. 
If Trump does become the man in charge of the most powerful nation on earth, his failure would stretch far beyond the Trump clan and his own reputation. It could have a significant impact on the livelihoods of real people and communities across America.

Closer to home, some would say Jeremy Corbyn is facing similar challenges

Some on the right hold him up as a contender for the post-truth poster boy but I’m not so sure. Jeremy is a man deeply rooted in principle and socialist ideology. He doesn’t ignore facts and the truth, he just has a very different perspective on their meaning.

For example, the austerity message was taken as fact during the Cameron era. A few voices in the media challenged it but on the whole it was accepted to be a necessary measure, so the real question became how much do we cut and where?

But Corbyn rejects this position. He says no to austerity and in doing so connected to an overwhelming Labour membership base who have seen the full effects of austerity and share Corbyn’s views. 

This caused a divide between those in the “Westminster” Labour party who accepted austerity as fact, and those who support Corbyn - rejecting it out of hand. But here’s where the difficulty lies, is it Corbyn who is in for a reputation reality check or the Westminster MPs who stand against him? Given the upcoming leadership challenge from Owen Smith I think that even the more left of centre members of the Labour party, not to mention the Blairite, or centralist members are in for the reality check.

The truth may turn out to be that Labour has become more of a socialist party than many want to believe and those in the centre are the ones trying to walk away from the facts. In any case, those of us in reputation management have to be on the watch for reputation reality checks of our own. We have to ask if what we say about our businesses, strategies and activities match the truth of what’s really going on. Otherwise we could find ourselves heading for a fall.

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