I have sat in a PR hotseat for so long I’m probably a little singed around the edges. Funnily enough, I no longer choose to call myself a public relations professional. Not because of the heat though — more because of the confusion that surrounds the term. I prefer to describe what I do as “Active Reputation Management” or even sometimes “Corporate Storytelling.” It all means the same thing — all that we do and say creates brand expectations and an impression of personality, whether applied to a large organization or to a mere individual.
A simple example might be the British Royal Family, about whom many people have strong and entrenched opinions, yet few have actually met. That doesn’t stop us all having definite (and opposing) views on the relative virtues of the Queen and Charles, William and Kate, or Meghan and Harry.
We learn about them through newspapers and online stories; books, television, films and plays. This means we feel we know them by reputation. And because we “know” them, it gives us a right to judge. The problem with this is that everyone brings their own feelings, preferences and prejudices to the table. So, we may look at the same material and draw entirely different conclusions.
In the real world, companies pay people like me substantial sums of money to ensure they are both known and recognized for the right reasons. Yet it’s entirely wrong to think the PR profession or “fake news” is a recent concept.
Fourteenth-century Scottish musicians and poets were employed by competing warlords to make jokes and songs at rivals’ expense. At the same time, they were paid even more by their master to create memorable flattery in story and verse, immortalizing a character. The stories shared, however, were presumably more about payment and ego than reality.
Portrait painters of the time could also apparently be persuaded to “airbrush” a mole or a double chin. A monarch who was 5 foot 2 could be turned into a noble giant, just with a few deft strokes and a little poetic license.
In the 20th century, advertising’s “Mad Men” days, things were only slightly more sophisticated. Glamorous images with a catchy jingle backed claims that one washing powder made clothes whiter than others. It worked, and it was easy to grab market share. At least before spoilsport regulators came along to force advertisers to justify their claims.
Impossibly beautiful actresses and handsome leading men are crafted and sold to us to match our own expectations of perfection. Those who knew them knew the true story (as dramatized so delightfully in the Gene Kelly classic “Singing in the Rain”), but as an audience, we wanted to believe the fairy tale, so we did.
Generations past were arguably more trusting; less used to the ways of publicists and special effects in cinematography. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t being sold an entirely fictionalized world view or other “fake news.” Glamour is almost always, by its definition, artificial.
As a population, we went through a long period of “If it’s in the newspaper or on the television, it must be true.” But PR companies made a lot of money wining and dining those with the power to sway opinion, creating a heyday for media barons and influential columnists. Elaborate stories were constructed to hide the less appealing sides of film stars and popular figures. Reputations were damaged with misinformation dropped in the right ear. In short, “fake news” is as old as the hills.
The significant difference is that in the past we largely ingested misinformation in innocence. Now we are so media savvy that we spot a lie at one hundred paces. But here’s the thing. There are lies which are demonstrably, factually incorrect and there are differences of opinion.
With the proliferation of digital information sharing and a lack of effective regulation, people believe their own, often polarised, ideas of the truth and reject all else. Rather than recognizing opinion, it becomes “the only truth,” with everything else rejected as lies. Sadly, this lacks the whole spectrum of greys which lie between black and white. Opinion is not fact. It’s what one individual believes, based on the information they have been given or choose to access. Another person may look at the same landscape of supposed facts and come to a completely different conclusion. Neither of them is necessarily wrong. Or right.
Where differences of opinion are not tolerated, truth is a very tricky concept. It appears that as a population we are becoming hard-wired to believe nothing. We often cynically reject much of what we see and hear. We often actively deride others who still feel able to believe in anything.
Yet the irony is that if we don’t actively seek information from outside our own tight circle of understanding, we are deliberately limiting our own perspective and inflicting untruths and half-truths on ourselves. We feed ourselves a narrow diet of our own PR without recognizing it for what it is.
Our desire to be free from manipulation can have the unintended consequence of narrowing perspective and understanding. It can also contribute to the increasing tribalism of rival camps, unwilling or unable to entertain alternative points of view. Worryingly, this very situation facilitates those who actively want to polarise views, often for their own ends. And we let them if we’ve committed to a path of narrow experience and shallow tolerance for debate.
Like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, if we suspect something is not quite right, we need to be savvy and acknowledge it. It doesn’t need to take all the fun out of life since theatre, song, television and storytelling revel in suspending belief. It only becomes a problem when it is viewed as a viable alternative to day-to-day life. Being recognizable, believable and credible are increasingly important in a world where we know information can be manipulated, and us with it.
To better educate ourselves, we need to access broader information. Many people have retreated too far into what they think they know. All of us should read, watch or visit a source of information which challenges our world view and expectations. Not necessarily to seek an epiphany, but to remind ourselves how to appreciate that others have a case, too.
The world has room for many different opinions, good and bad. We need to ensure we maintain the ability to recognize the difference. Having access to as much information and as many channels as we do is only advantageous if we revel in having a smorgasbord of opinion. It’s the only way to stop ourselves from becoming vulnerable to too narrow a diet until we can’t recognize a lie when we see one.