Trust in institutions continues to fall. At the same time, the gap between “well-informed” and “differently informed” people yawns ever wider. Increasingly, people only trust “people like themselves”. Associations, as organised advocates for communities of interests, are part of the problem and could be part of the solution.

The so-called post-truth era emerged from the end of the period of secularisation and the end of the polarisation of society. When neither Pope or priesthood, Buddha, Marx or Keynes can tell you what to believe, when globalised trade or the EU fail to save your life, when national politicians are weak and – what’s worse – boring, you are left with four things to make up your mind: nostalgia, your friends and neighbours, mass consumption and mass media. Consumerism ate up all social movements; there is a straight line from reality TV to populism to fake news.

Consumerism needs people to be consumers first, before being voters, informed citizens, parents or unique individuals. When you are no longer a person but a demographic or a “revenue generating unit” mistrust may actually be advisable: you are now someone’s stakeholder.

Associations have a clear role: to represent the interests of their members to stakeholders who can help or harm those interests. So far, so classic PR. The problem of PR, however, has always been its enormous potential for abuse. One of its most pernicious guises is the “transferred interest frame”.

An association who uses the transferred interest frame is dishonest because it pretends that it is not advocating for the interest of its members (a legitimate goal) but instead for the interests of the stakeholder. For instance, a pro-tobacco group may want to pretend they are pro-personal choice, whereas in reality they are trying to protect a revenue stream.

At their very best, associations are organisations who enable their members to improve their work and their ethical standards and who provide a service to society by ensuring transparency. They need to be dedicated to the truth and although they are allowed bias, they should not be allowed obfuscation or lies.

To characterise society today as “post-truth” suggests that we previously enjoyed an era of “truth”. This is clearly not the case. It may be more accurate to state we have lost our innocence about where truth may be found and how it can be recognised. Trust will slowly come back. To help it come back, professional communicators have a responsibility to ensure that the organisations they are associated with will never knowingly tell a lie.

How hard can it be?

About the author

John Burger is an independent consultant specialising in identity, engagement and reputation.  His previous roles include director of communication at Dutch cable company Ziggo, and director of communications and change at Dutch bank ABN AMRO. He joined the EACD in 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @johnburger_nl and on Facebook at JohnBurgerConsulting.

About this blog

Throughout the year, EACD will publish a series of online content around our 2017 themes: Authenticity, Personalisation of Communications, Digitalisation, Europe, and Trust. To share your insights on these topics, contact