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'Prepare your comms team for the Trump era of alternative facts'

Andy Allsopp
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At the end of 2016, you might remember Oxford Dictionaries declaring ‘post-truth’ as its international word of 2016, in what it described as a highly charged political 12 months.

I’d been pondering what ‘post-truth’ means for the average council communicator but before I could string together a coherent comment or two on post-truth, it was usurped in favour of the phrase ‘alternative facts’, courtesy of the President Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway.

That phrase strikes me as just another way of describing spin, which has been around forever.

Journalists used to call it ‘top-spinning’ a story, which was seldom good news for a council because it meant the facts wouldn’t be presented as you or I would see them in order to make the story better. When I was hack I used to do it all the time. If the council was able to spin its argument back, great, that was all part of the game. In the Trump era, the spin is still there. It’s just got big, brasher and louder, it’s often directed at a critic or opponent, and it’s delivered via Twitter.

I once thought social media would move us into a ‘post-spin’ era. I thought Twitter and its lightning speed would enable the public to expose any rash statement a politician or a council might make. The press and the public are still challenging dubious claims, but thanks to Trump’s approach spin has morphed into ‘alternative facts’. Twitter has become a frontline communications weapon with capital letters screaming ‘NOT’ or ‘LIES’ at anyone who has challenged the president or called him out.

Back in the early days of the Blair government, No 10’s press office set up a rebuttal unit, apparently staffed by a team who were in a permanent state of professional denial. That approach seems quaint now. In the post-truth era, all you need is a tweet screaming ‘FRAUD’ if you object to someone’s stance.

There are implications for council comms in all this. It shows that people will relate more easily to simple, strong and sometimes shrill messages or statements via Twitter.

It’s fair to expect that opposition parties and groups might ramp things up, Trump-style, on social media before this year’s elections. That might mean some tough stuff to deal with if your council is on the receiving end, but it’s not impossible and there’s a whole host of expertise out there to tap into. Simple and strong messages I can live with. But not personal attacks. And please, NO CAPS.

Andy Allsopp, head of communications and marketing, Essex CC

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