On the Record

Insights and Analysis from Gallatin Public Affairs

In the Age of Fake News: Adapt or Regret It

January 19, 2017

by Marc Johnson



If we needed further proof that the business of communicating about public policy now lives in an entirely new universe that proof was provided recently by the editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if the business paper of record would use the word “lie” to underscore a particularly egregious falsehood uttered by a politician, Journal editor Gerard Baker said he would hesitate to do so since using the word might imply “intent” or cause some readers to consider the newspaper as “not being objective.” The exchange launched a thousand Twitter rants.

I cannot recall a similar question being asked of any editor, ever. That the question was asked of one of the top journalists in the county and in the wake of one of the most fact-challenged elections in modern times merely underscores the difficulty communicators now face in setting apart our “facts” from someone else’s “fake news,” or more correctly propaganda.

It may be tempting for those of us who need to conduct serious business in the public sector to monitor the arguments from the sidelines, but that would entail substantial risk. It is no time to be passive when a tweet can jolt a company’s stock 140 characters at a time.

Three communication approaches to consider in this new age:

Stand for something and create a drumbeat: Don’t wait until you are playing defense to communicate what you stand for. No one will communicate for you, that’s your job. At a time when basic facts seem entirely fungible it is all the more important to stick to core principles and deal relentlessly in facts that you can back up with evidence. Fake news is here to stay, but facts and logic will continue to matter.

Simplify, simplify, and simplify: Good communicators tell stories and don’t make speeches. Kevin Madden, once a top advisor to Mitt Romney, recently offered a spot on assessment of the soon-to-be commander in chief’s strategic understanding of Twitter. “Trump understands one important dynamic,” Madden said, “In a world where there is a wealth of information, there is always a poverty of attention, and he has this ability to generate four or five story lines a day…He is always in control.” You can exercise control by having a story you believe in and telling it honestly.

People trust their friends: A third party talking genuinely and spontaneously about your issue is almost always going to be more powerful than a message delivered through the “old” and increasingly unpersuasive media. The widespread and still expanding use of social media, coupled with the erosion of credibility among almost every American institution, including the media, has made it much more likely your audience will value the opinion of a Facebook friend over that of a corporate spokesperson. One recent survey found “76 percent of consumers believe the content that average people share is more honest than advertising from brands.” Profit from this reality.

The election changed so much of what we thought we knew about politics and perhaps changed even more about how we need think about communicating. It has all gotten more difficult. The pace of change is at light speed. Be quick, adapt or wish you had.

Marc Johnson

Of Counsel, Boise

Marc Johnson is the former Chief of Staff to Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus. He worked as a broadcast journalist and is the previous President of Gallatin Public Affairs. He authors a blog, The Johnson Post, and produces the podcast Many Things Considered. You can subscribe to Marc’s newsletter here.