Stranger danger: Trust in ‘a person like me’ has built a post-truth world

For your message to be heard, avoid being cast as ‘the other’

The biggest story of the last 16 years of Edelman Trust Barometer data has been the demise of traditional authority and the corresponding rise of ‘a person like me’ (friends, peers or a person we believe shares similar values or characteristics) as a trusted source of information.

CEO, MP, editor — these positions no-longer confer trusted status. Only the ‘expert’ clings on as a traditional authority figure, trusted to sublimate self-interest in the interest of objective truth. Even here, trust and influence may be in decline. In Britain’s EU referendum campaign, a tsunami of expert opinion backing “remain” has had almost zero effect on the polls.

As trust in traditional authority declined, two forces were supposed to act as a counterbalance.

The first was transparency. Activists could unearth and share information more easily, exposing uncomfortable truths without the need for investigative journalism. Data sets could be analysed by people co-operating online to give people unprecedented capacity to scrutinise.

The second was the marketplace of ideas. As the economics of the internet brought newspapers to their knees, the public would graze stories curated by search algorithms and social networks from millions of sources. Biased editors and proprietors would be replaced by pluralism, with the most important stories and best ideas rising to the top.

The only catch is that in order for these counterbalancing forces to work, the public needs to care about facts, but the social mind wants to belong, above all.

The rise of ‘a person like me’ has thus given birth to a ‘post-truth’ era, where comforting narratives and familiar messengers beat fact and argument in the marketplace of ideas, while social echo chambers prevent effective scrutiny of individuals, organisations and campaigns that we think are on the ‘right side’ of an argument. ‘My truth’, ‘our truth’ and ‘the truth I feel’ beat ‘objective truth’. Those with alternative viewpoints are demonised so that their arguments can be ignored, while journalists are dismissed as lamestream or face petitions for their removal.

Information that appears to confirm a pre-conceived narrative travels across social media instantly, while facts often emerge once the storm has passed. The police officer (authority figure) involved in the Ferguson shooting was convicted in the court of public opinion long before the official report refuted the popular narrative.

Discussing Donald Trump’s presidential campaign’s imperviousness to factual critique, Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, said:

“Fact-checking by mainstream media organisations has no effect. We are objects of suspicion, accused of hiding facts. Seeing opportunity, politicians exploit these fabrications for their own ends, repeating them — or staying silent when they know full well they are untrue.”

And why should a public that fetishises ‘a person like me’ care what Washington elites have to say about a personality who has been part of American life for decades? As The Economist’s Matt Steinglass, explained:

“The character that Trump has made of himself has been 25 years in the making. We know that character — the groundwork has already been laid.”

While Beltway Insiders and Westminster Bubblers find themselves estranged from the voters they seek to influence, academics and scientists are increasingly exasperated that intellectual enquiry has been replaced by arguments over privilege and perspective. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, recently told the Rubin Report:

“It’s so infuriating — you’re on a campus and you try to make arguments and use reason but you meet students and they size you up: ‘What’s your race, what’s your gender? I’m judging you on the basis of that. I’m not listening to you.’

Alice Dreger, the celebrated bioethicist and author, used her 2015 Holden Award Address to advise a hall of attentive academics that if they wanted their work to get a fair hearing, they would have to build relationships with journalists and influencers, likely to be instinctively distrustful of ‘elitists’:

“If you lack ‘oppressed identity cards’, people will say you’re more likely to be evil. I think this is a stupid way to face the world personally, but it’s the way scientists get judged.”

The end of deference to authority hasn’t produced healthy scepticism, instead we have become simultaneously suspicious and credulous, vulnerable to abuses of trust by ‘plain talkers’ who like a pint and a fag, just as we once were to people wearing pin-stripe suits or vestments. Old-world gatekeepers and ‘people like me’ are both capable of causing anti-vaccination panics. In the past, good and bad ideas may have existed, unconnected and disorganised among millions of people — today the internet has connected and amplified them.

In this environment, if a business wants to be trusted, it has to do more than just ‘the right thing’ — that’s merely table stakes. Companies have to avoid being characterised as ‘the other’ and instead become ‘a person like me’.

To do that, it helps to have products and services that are relatable. Edelman Trust data shows sectors like tech and food & drink, which produce things we use daily, are consistently the most trusted, regardless of any scandals that dog them. Innovations that are ‘close’ to the public, such as electronic payments, are more trusted than technologies which are used remotely, such as cloud computing.

Assuming a company’s products and services aren’t up for negotiation as part of a communications strategy, there are some things clients can do:

  1. Help their CEOs become personal storytellers, enabling people to relate to them and the journey that led them to their decisions. Motivation matters.
  2. Engage (listen, respond, discuss, collaborate) the public directly through owned and social channels, rather than relying on journalists to spread the word. Intermediaries add a sense of distance — and are now less trusted than ‘a company I use’.
  3. Work on their employer brand, showing that the company consists of people who share their customers’ values and world-view.
  4. Abandon corporate advertising. Paid’s role should be to develop long-term partnerships with media brands and to seed content via influencers.
  5. Stand for something. Speaking out may alienate a few who vehemently disagree, but how can you relate to a company that says nothing? Bland politicians like Yvette Cooper and Jeb Bush get punished for their lack of opinions — populists are being rewarded everywhere for their willingness to speak up. In business, a recent survey by the PRCA found that 70% of the PR agencies that advised clients about the EU referendum, urged them to remain neutral — a mistake in an age when the public wants to know ‘who’ you are.

I offer this prescription with no great satisfaction. There is no substitute for genuine argument and independent scrutiny. The rise of ‘a person like me’ threatens good decision making and creates wedge issues, from immigration to separatism. Elizabeth Holmes is a CEO with a great line in personal storytelling and missionary zeal, but it took an investigative journalist at the WSJ to dig into the facts behind the frothy narrative and burst Theranos’ bubble.

But my job is to help clients navigate the world we live in. Right now, companies have to talk and act like ‘a person like me’ if they want to be heard.

When the world rediscovers an interest in facts, the good news is that companies and the experts who run them will, more often than not, have them on their side.