Here’s the truth: companies can’t lie like politicians can because it will hurt business

The constant flow of ‘alternative facts’ might be sustaining the Trump White House, but it raises fundamental questions for companies about the value of integrity and truth in business, writes Sophy Buckley

“Post-truth” was the word of the year in 2016, according to the Oxford University Press. An early contender for 2017 has got to be “alternative facts”, thanks to the cultural impact this dumb phrase has made in just a couple of months.

Sure, there has always been a range of truth. Truth comes from a perspective – which is influenced by context, which is open to interpretation. But the Trump administration has been repeatedly telling obvious falsehoods, even in the face of ridicule. Consider, too, that fake news has been shared more often on social media than traditional news stories and we must ask whether society cares about truth and integrity any more.

What on earth does this mean for marketing and communications departments schooled on the idea that a reputation for honesty and truth is at the heart of a successful corporation?

Lies are bad for business

The good news is that all the available evidence shows that companies don’t get away with lying to the public like politicians do. In our everyday life – from where we buy our clothes to which cars we drive – we rely on information and narratives to inform our choices. If we find that information to be misleading, we can get pretty hung up about it.

When a high-street chain tells its shoppers that it doesn’t use sweatshops, it had better be telling the truth. If sweatshop products are found in its stores, it can expect highly critical, prime-time documentaries – which threaten sales, attract fines and affect the share price. Essentially, if it says it smells of lavender and in fact it smells of dog food the public won’t take it.

Remember the considerable consumer ire provoked by Volkswagen when it was found to have engineered its vehicles to emit different emissions under laboratory testing conditions than in everyday driving? The fraud affected some 11m cars worldwide and the company’s shares fell by a third. Sales in the UK dropped by a fifth immediately after.

We may conclude from this that when money is involved, investors and customers do care. A recent participant at the World Economic Forum, where these issues were much discussed, told FirstWord: “When people have real money at stake, there’s a clear value in working out what is real and what isn’t. In politics, the costs of fake news are less tangible.”

A corporate effort to shore up credibility

Business seems mostly to get this and there are public moves afoot to maintain credibility. The Public Relations Society of America, with 22,000 members, put out a statement in January condemning the use of alternative facts. “Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts,” said Jane Dvorak, the society’s chair.

Its line is echoed by Edelman, whose annual survey on the subject recently revealed the biggest ever drop in the public’s trust of business, government, the media and NGOs. The survey’s findings prompted the public relations group to issue a rallying cry to businesses to take on the role of the “solid retaining wall that stops the uncontrollable storm surge of distrust that is threatening to destroy western society”.

Even Facebook has finally been shamed into taking action that rows back on its previous arguments about not being responsible for publishing what is on its site. Now that a bunch of Macedonian teenagers pumping out fake news on social media has changed the course of world history by helping Donald Trump to get elected, Facebook has started to tackle the overwhelming tide of lies that is posted and reposted on there. It has recently announced that it would flag up fake or hoax news stories in an effort to stop their rapid spread. Google also has a fact check tool.

Enough of the alternative facts

More good news for truth-seekers comes from well-regarded newspapers. Peter Spiegel, news editor of the Financial Times, told FirstWord: “What we’ve seen at the FT, and I think it’s been the same for other mainstream news organisations like the New York Times, is a big bump in subscriptions post Brexit and post Trump. We saw a 10 per cent jump in the past six months. So a big number of readers are looking for quality, looking for the truth and we’ve benefited from that.”

This might indicate that we’ve reached a saturation, or tipping, point with regard to alternative facts. Simon Jenkins, former Times editor, appears to think so. In a recent piece in the Guardian he wrote: “The internet has shown it can magnify the big lie. So it can magnify big truth. It can find a way across the morass of partiality and mendacity to the firm ground of fact. It used to fall to the mainstream media to perform this task. Now the media is everyone and everywhere.”

Still a place for honest storytelling

Truth still matters then, we believe, and there is always a place for honest storytelling. Indeed companies should not be scared by a mendacity backlash to combine the two. Robert Shiller, economist and Nobel laureate who teaches at Yale, wrote recently: “Narratives are human constructs that are mixtures of fact and emotion and human interest and other extraneous detail… If we can create an amusing story that will get retold, it can establish a point of view, a reference point, which will have influence on decisions.”

Shiller goes on to say: “People with an aptitude for storytelling see great fortune in monkeying with stories in an effort to have them go viral.” There’s even a name for these people – narrative entrepreneurs.

There is a danger, of course, that the truth is stretched to the point of falsehood to create a good story (or even ignored altogether). But successful corporate comms should always be about getting an audience to love and respect you warts and all, not lying about the bad bits. A great example is a TV ad currently showing in the UK for a website that buys cars. Its thrust is that you will probably get more cash selling your car privately, but asks whether it is worth the hassle. Instead of lying about the prices it pays, is up front, turning what could be a negative into a positive.

This is important. A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that a strong emotional response to content, whether positive or negative, tends to promote sharing. What is more, positive stories are more likely to be shared. Which is exactly what marketers want.

What’s all the fuss about?

If you put it like that, it all seems pretty easy. Having a strong narrative helps to build an audience. Although the temptation might be there to embellish and even distort the story, companies can’t lie like politicians do – the public doesn’t react in the same way and the lies tend to come back to haunt them.

In a nutshell, this means that when companies want or need to tell a story, the narrative must be kept positive, accurate and relevant. To maximise impact, it should also be timely and accessible – on channels the target audience sees. But above all, it must be truthful. Alternative facts might well have helped elect a president and be the buzzword of 2017, but they won’t sell more cars, nor shift more T-shirts. That’s the truth.