CIPR National Conference: communicating in a ‘post-truth’ digital age

Colin Byrne, CEO, UK & EMEA at Weber Shandwick, says the stakes have been raised for communicators in the ‘post-truth’ digital age.

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Colin Byrne

For communicators, Byrne said, at the CIPR National Conference yesterday (November 22), the consequence of working in the current environment is that reputation has never been so valuable, nor so easily lost.

He cited the example of a viral image that claimed to show what was inside of a McDonald’s chicken nugget, yet had no connection to the brand or its food. According to Byrne, the McDonald’s comms team handled the issue well, but that didn’t prevent the image from being shared online.

Over the course of 2016, the term ‘post-truth’ has become widely used, propelled by news stories such as the recent claim that ‘post-truth’ is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. A claim which, Byrne said,  has since, ironically, been found to be untrue.

Untruth, has become acceptable, and more widespread, he said: “The dismissal of experts and facts is a real challenge for our business.”

Citing a quote from MP Michael Gove, Byrne explained how, traditionally, PRs have provided expert opinion. Yet today, a general lack of trust in authority, including politicians and corporations, means that people are most likely to trust their peers.

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the average person is two times more likely to trust the average man in the street than a business leader. “Brands are in the dock until proven innocent,” Byrne said.

Byrne also spoke about the fake news phenomenon, which epitomises the tendency of digital media to prioritise ‘clicks’ and advertising revenue over truth: “Fake news is worth a lot of money…  let’s not underestimate the continuing power of media [to our industry].” Broadcast, as well as social media, is still important, and PRs now have the means to engage directly with their audiences.

In order to rebuild trust, Byrne recommended that businesses compile and share valuable data and analytics. CEO visibility also builds trust in a brand, he added.


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