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Post Truth the New Word for 2016

Oxford Dictionary has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year.  It is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the use of the work has risen by 2000% over the last 18 months primarily driven by events such as Brexit and the USA Presidential elections.  And while the use of the word has mainly been in politically led conversations what would happen if it started to be mainstream in business?

The level of regulation and compliance for most organisations is significant and growing.  In many ways, this level of control has been put in place to ensure that shareholders, employees, stock markets and the government get the truth about what is happening inside a company.  Whether it is the financial accounts as audited by an organisation like PwC, or SOX compliance declaration stating that there are no known incidents or events that would materially impact the financial performance of the business.  The list continues to grow with various regulations, reporting and auditing that must be done for stock exchanges listed business.  But these rules and regulations don’t extend to all types of companies and for all areas of the organisations.  And even with regulations, we know that they are not always followed.  What would happen if post-truth actions impacted a company?  Here is a scenario that could happen that could materially affect your brand value.

Your organisation is trying to recruit new managers, and someone has been posting data on sites like Glassdoor that show being a manager at your company is the worst job in the world, long hours, no recognition, bad pay and no training.  All the posts are very emotional and appear to the EQ of candidates.  Statements like “if you work for this company expect never to see your children again and if you do it will be when they make you redundant”.  These statements spread like wildfire (remember the tweet in Texas about the bus loads of anti-Trump protesters – “How a fake news story goes viral” NY Times).  Once the statements are out there, they multiply until the point that no one will apply for any roles in the company and ultimately customer service suffers, financials are challenged, and the company moves towards bankruptcy.  In the post-truth world, this could happen if the emotion outweighs the facts.


What makes the above scenario different than what occurred during Brexit and the USA Presidential elections?  First, to create the emotional situation described above you would have to have a business that is universally disliked, as one or two disgruntled employees would be very challenged to create a tsunami of social chatter.  But some organisations could fall into that category, and some have had a taste of what “post-truth” might feel like.  Corporations such as McDonald’s for the amount paid to its CEO or BP after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or VW after the emission test rigging.  These companies and others have had an experience that might be described as “post-truth”.  While each one of them had truthful moments that triggered the initial emotional response from the public; this got amplified and spread in both a truth and a post-truth manner.  The emotions of the public wanted to “blame someone”, and this resulted in an appeal to emotions and personal beliefs that damaged these businesses.

Another side of post-truth in a commercial setting is having leaders of that business overstate the effectiveness, performance or application of the product they make and sell.   History has many examples of this from heath tonic sales people travelling town to town with magical cures for ailments in the 19th century to training programmes that will help you get rich fast.  While consumer watchdogs and regulatory bodies help to ensure that consumers are not lied to, in a post-truth world where the line between emotional descriptions and just plain lying?  Will it be ok to sell a product on features and functions that appeal to the emotions but at the end of the day turn out not to be true?  If your competition does this will you be putting your business in danger if you don’t?  Will the ethics lines be redrawn as organisations (as well as our political leaders) feel it is ok to stretch and overstate the truth?

For the “C-suite” and boards of larger organisations understanding the risk of “post-truth” and how that could impact the brand, recruitment and retention, and of course, financials is an agenda that is worth including in the major leadership meetings.  In a world where our leaders feel it is alright to make statements that play to emotions and personal beliefs, which are not underpinned by facts and data, could cause massive change regarding winners and losers in a marketplace.  As the CBS News closed their article on Oxford Dictionary choosing “post-truth”: 

The seriousness of the words defining 2016 stands a far cry from 2015, when Oxford Dictionaries chose a smiling, crying emoji as its word of the year.

Article by Mary Sue Rogers


Posted On : 24-11-16

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