Distance, communications and public affairs

Despite the best efforts of devolution, Westminster remains the powerhouse of politics and the media. Those further away from London can often struggle to get their voices heard. But there is a reason and that is explained by the Allen Curve.

The Allen Curve was discovered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Thomas J. Allen in the late 1970s. In simplistic terms, the Allen Curve is a graph that shows: ‘an exponential drop in the frequency of communication between engineers as the distance between them increases’.

What I take this to mean is that the closer you are, the better and more effective the communications are. I’d like to thank John Williams, Head of ACCA UK, for making me aware of the Allen Curve. I am late to learning about the curve but it does seem to offer some valuable lessons for public affairs.

Allen’s findings have impacted on everything from office design through to organisational arrangements, particularly the idea that proximity boosts collaboration. MIT itself uses the thinking to help boost cross disciplinary research and you can see the idea playing out in the development of ‘growth hubs’ that aim to boost local economies by making the most of existing relationships, specialisms and the strengths of its communities.

Further research has also shown that the highest performing employees are the ones who interact more and the, slightly more obvious, findings that people are more likely to communicate with those who sits closest by.

Allen also suggested that there are key information gatekeepers within organisations. They are not often widely recognised but play a valuable role in receiving and conveying information.

Now, of course, the amount of communications, including social media, may well have increased since Allen’s original findings. There is certainly a lot more ‘noise’ around but is anyone really listening? Especially in public affairs terms, are the right people listening? Are your communications really having an impact? What are some of the lessons for public affairs from the Allen Curve?

  1. Geography matters – as well as being quite an argument for more devolution, the Curve would appear to suggest that those further away from the centre of political power and decision-making need to make efforts to bring their communications closer to them. This can be done in a number of ways – from regular attendance through to holding events. But there is no escaping the need for direct engagement which, given the distance, needs to be constantly reiterated;
  2. It is not just a case of being in Westminster and Whitehall – but also utilising the networks of others. This is the smart use of resources and the opportunities that can be developed by others. Not all opportunities have to be home grown. Working with other organisations can really help inform the development of policy, for example, which will then resonate more closely with policy makers. They can bring their Westminster knowledge and insight to the issue;
  3. Identifying the information gatekeepers – as part of the stakeholder strategies there should, where possible, be a number of such people. They will probably only come to light during discussions with others and they could be at any level of, for instance, the civil service. But do not ignore them simply because they do not seem, on the face of it, influential enough;
  4. Distance could mean that you need to be louder – this is not always the case but it is interesting that you can see this approach with initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse (although there are some political rivalries involved here as well..!) In a campaign, you may simply need to find ways of being heard by those some distance away and making your issues resonate with them. It would give credence to the idea that people in the Westminster bubble have difficulty understanding others. But on that basis it could be suggested there is a ‘Manchester bubble’ or a ‘Bristol bubble’ and that it is more about the distances involved and the communications; and
  5. Policy distance? – distance can be physical but there can also be policy distance as well. Both need to be explicitly recognised and action taken to overcome them rather than simply being accepted.

What the Allen Curve tells us is that it is harder to communicate the further away you are. Many organisations have always implicitly felt that to be the case but Allen’s findings provide some evidence to back this up. It is not that communications will always be easier for those in London but it does provide opportunities for engagement, networking and information sharing that those outside will not enjoy.

Those further away need to consider additional steps in their public affairs and some already do.

We need to remember that the same general lessons about distance apply across the devolved institutions, increasing cities through mayors, and, of course, in Brussels especially post-Brexit. Westminster is fundamentally no different from any other seat of power.

A lot of the work I do is advising clients, not based in London, on engagement and policy development. They know they face a challenge in getting government to listen to them. The Allen Curve helps to explain why.

Photo by Henning Witzel on Unsplash

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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