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Making your words matter in the era of fake news

Words matter. What we choose to say and how will restore the ability to have a productive dialogue.

Words matter. What we choose to say and how will restore the ability to have a productive dialogue.

The events of the past few months have created some profound challenges for communications professionals, including our clients. Across the globe, traditional news outlets have been undermined by accusations of “fake news,” while we watch the misstatements of government officials re-labelled as “alternative facts.” The ability to engage in productive, open and civil conversations has become nearly impossible because of the gaping partisan divides that have come to the fore in the UK, the US, France and elsewhere.

While political discourse has suffered the most, the business and trade media on which we have traditionally relied as key communications channels are not immune. There is an enormous level of distrust in all media, across all audiences. How can we hope to deliver credible, trusted messages in this era where the act of communicating itself is suspect?

Simply, we must escape from the bubbles we’ve built around ourselves, and then find new ways to communicate with diverse and highly skeptical audiences.

Our bubbles are a product of how we have applied online and mobile technology. These innovations have allowed us to make connections with individuals anywhere in the world, to form relationships with people who share our passions and beliefs. That has been empowering, and has opened doors of engagement that didn’t exist a decade ago.

While we have opened new doors, though, we have closed others. Even as we have fashioned ourselves a vibrant online environment of like-minded people, by nature, that environment excludes those who see or experience things differently. We have become more connected and more isolated at the same time.

This goes beyond our personal experiences. It has become easy for communications professionals to isolate ourselves within our individual offices, within the urban areas where most of us work, or within the specific industries we serve. When we work inside that bubble long enough, it gets harder to think outside of it – and to communicate effectively outside of it. (Consider for a moment that every communications agency CEO interviewed by PRWeek on the eve of the US election got it wrong.)

I’m not suggesting that business communications face the same level of challenge as we now see in politics. But it has been a rude awakening for me. I’ve realized that I have to burst my bubble, and get way outside my comfort zone to best serve my clients. I have to ask the tough questions, sure, but more importantly, be willing to listen and seek different answers.

It’s true that corporate leaders aren’t likely to become staunchly “blue” and “red” about their business operations in the same way as we have seen individuals do with politics. It seems unlikely that a CTO will alter the analysis of an important technology purchase because of where a story about the technology is published.  But do these leaders, and do we, understand our audiences in the way we thought we did?  We have long talked about engagement and dialogue. Are we truly listening as well and as closely as we like to believe we are?

Yet, we do more than help clients market their products and services: We are responsible for the communications that maintain a positive perception of their brands to ALL stakeholders. This is where our challenge is most serious:  Not only do we need to get out of our own bubbles, but we also need to find ways to break into the innumerable bubbles into which our splintered audiences have segregated themselves.

Breaking out of our bubbles may prove the easier of the two challenges. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, and we are in an era where trust has been seriously eroded (and cries of “fake news” and “alternative facts” continues to do so). Recovering that trust and creating dialogue will require us to use all the tools we have to continue to communicate with authenticity and transparency, and to have a redoubled focus on a few key fundamentals:


  • Active Listening: First, acknowledge that you have been in your own bubble. Next, take the time to really learn what’s inside those other bubbles, what’s important to each audience, how they view the world. Finally, acknowledge that other people see things differently. Even though your viewpoint may differ from theirs – and even though you may sincerely believe that all the facts support your viewpoint over theirs — the simple fact of acknowledging those differences with respect is the key to opening a dialogue. Find ways to tell your client’s story that are both genuine, but also reflect the worldview of each audience, and you may be able to present your facts in a way that others will accept.
  • Humanize the Story: We often talk about “humanizing” our stories, but when you are inside a bubble, all those people tend to be just like you. We think we put a lot of thought and effort into diversity, but we often fall far short by focusing on diversity of appearance, rather than diversity of ideas. There are many people who think differently that feel that they never see themselves in ads or on a website – and if they don’t see themselves in the story, they aren’t likely to listen to it.
  • Dialogue and Engagement: Don’t just talk at people. Talk with them. A real conversation means responding to people’s thoughts, ideas, questions – and doing so quickly. It shows you’re listening, the first step to stronger engagement.
  • Reopen Doors: Think hard about how you use technology to streamline your intake of information. Instead of curating such a tightly focused set of feeds and sources, choose two sources from the opposite side of the spectrum, and read them regularly. See for yourself what is being said that is motivating your audiences and factor that into how you communicate with them.

We face perhaps the most challenging communications environment that I have seen in my career. That doesn’t mean that our work is impossible; it means that our approach must be different. For the sake of our clients, our businesses and our society, it’s time to burst the bubbles we have created. The work of communications in today’s environment must be to break down barriers, build trust, and bridge the enormous gaps that exist between different audiences.

Words matter. What we choose to say and how will restore the ability to have a productive dialogue.

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