Purpose in the post-truth era

26th January 2017

As commentators on almost every medium around the world (including this blog) have acknowledged since mid-2016, we now live in a post-truth era. Populism and pessimism drive the narratives in political, social and international affairs, and our UK & EMEA CEO Colin Byrne has predicted that the post-truth communications phenomenon will migrate from politics to the corporate world. These are challenging and fragmented times, and of special concern to those of us who are engaged in purpose-driven communications to accelerate social progress.

Compounding this trend is an economic situation that directly affects people and the planet. The United Nations, whose mission fosters peace and prosperity for all, faces major funding gaps; the 10 million NGOs around the world may find themselves spending a greater proportion of their budgets on advocacy than programmes that aid their beneficiaries; and individual supporters – who generously give billions to charitable causes – may feel deterred from giving to causes that aren’t deemed to serve self-interest or domestic security.

That is why it’s more important than ever that the private sector gets it right. Increasingly, business is a source of innovation that can help to solve important social and environmental problems. And it’s been proven that brands that are purpose-driven in ways that truly engage their stakeholders achieve higher value in the marketplace, significantly outperforming their peers.

In an era of growing expectation for collaborative leadership to address big global challenges and opportunities, including the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, the next few years represent a critical window of opportunity: the Business and Sustainable Development Commission reported last week that business, as a trusted partner working with government and civil society, could open up 12 trillion dollars in economic opportunities and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs.

It’s equally important that we as an industry also get it right. Communications professionals must continue advocating for truth and honesty, maintaining a strong focus on integrity and core ethical values.

The communications function has a critical role to play in shaping our world, and we can accomplish that by following three principles in purpose-driven communications.

Maintain positivity in communications.

Many declared 2016 as the worst year in the history of the universe. However, if we resist this cynicism, we will also remember that last year, child mortality decreased, a vaccine for the Ebola virus was developed, the number of tigers grew for the first time in 100 years, 50 million trees were planted in India in a single day and Portugal ran its entire nation on renewable energy for four days straight. These are a handful of tremendous examples of progress in global health, resource management and environmental protection. And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof predicts that 2017 may be the best year ever, so let’s adopt some of that optimism.

Alex Evans argues strongly in The Myth Gap that it’s important to keep a historical perspective and not fall into “collapsitarian” narratives as they have a tendency to be self-fulfilling. It should be our duty as purpose-driven communicators to adopt a tone and tenor of progress and positivity as an antidote to the doomsday scenarios that bombard us.

Quod defensor: Bridge fact and feeling.

As “defenders of the fact”, we should resist the notion that facts have lost their currency. How can we do this when fake news dominates public discourse?

Traditional news sources still matter, a great deal. As we argued in our Social Impact Purpose-Driven Data report, we are surrounded by abundant information. Numbers have an important story to tell, but it’s our job as purpose-driven communicators to give them a voice, so we appeal to both the rational and the emotional. We must integrate knowledge and analysis in our activities, while preserving the art of storytelling.

Begin with an authentic passion for issues.

Purpose and passion go hand in hand. Millennials, for example, are increasingly demanding that brands pursue a social mission, and demonstrate authenticity; they want to see businesses whose purpose is to do positive things.

As purpose-led communicators, we should be champions for universal values. Core values of equity, civility, inclusivity and diversity are vital to our shared success and prosperity.

Purpose still matters. Leading with – and going beyond – purpose is still relevant… and it’s still a winning communications strategy.