One of the oldest anecdotes that PR professionals roll out when media training senior executives is the impact of the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential debate in 1960. It was the first televised Presidential debate and while the radio audience called it a draw, the television audience decisively called it for the younger, healthier-looking and simply more televisual senator from Boston, shifting the tide of the election and ultimately the result.
Kennedy had looked and sounded presidential – in appearance, tone and content he had demonstrated he was made of the ‘right stuff’ and the public could put their trust in him.
Fast-forward nearly sixty years from Kennedy-Nixon, and we rolled onto last night and the latest edition in the long running series of candidate television debates, the Johnson-Corbyn match-up; and how things have changed.
While the pundits are divided on which candidate edged a close debate, they almost unanimously refer to the wider issue of whether either of the candidates met that most basic of expectation of voters by telling the truth.
The reason why media trainers reference the Kennedy-Nixon debate is to emphasise the need to come across as authentic, truthful and trustworthy. Messages are to be delivered clearly, backed up with evidence and proof points. Businesses and business-leaders rely on consumer trust and when this trust is proven to be unfounded, the company can face the sort of crisis that can destroy the brand.
Imagine for one moment if the CEO of a confectioners told a series of demonstrable falsehoods about their products and their rival’s products. Further still, imagine this CEO kept on saying them despite protests, so much so that a cottage industry of consumer groups was created in repudiating and pointing out this ‘fake news’. Then imagine that business deciding to set up a fake consumer group to attack their rivals or the evidence in front of them.
We have been here with the tobacco industry, who have been labelled as the pioneers of fake news, and other industries seeking to dissemble or cover up. Modern business practices, however, embrace engagement, transparency, clear values, fiscal prudence, demonstrable action and truthfulness, as they search for the goal of strong brand trust from consumers, policy makers and opinion formers.
The striking thing about this election campaign is the extraordinary decision of both major parties to ignore these fundamental building blocks of trust. When you have a situation of record levels of public doubt in the democratic system and our leaders, you don’t double down on the very things undermining that trust, you change your approach.
It is probably about time that our political parties looked to the playbook of modern business practices and corporate communications if they are to rebuild the trust between the public and our democracy.