Robust Communication Is Here To Stay: Pay Attention To The New Realities

There is little doubt that communication has become more robust. This certainly helps to gain attention but is also a way to ensure that misinformation, or even ‘fake news’ is not allowed to go unchallenged.

Whatever an organisation says or does may need to be defended. Organisations need to recognise this reality.

Long form

There has, for instance, been a noticeable change in the way that Government has responded when confronted by accusations. It often hits back hard if it feels that it is being misrepresented in any way through a long form blog post. Companies too have adopted a similar approach in the face of a crisis. Rather than simply relying on a short statement provided to the media and shared over social media, they go to Medium and post a longer explanation.

This approach is not a replacement for a statement but allows the issue to be dealt with in more detail. Especially for those with an interest in the issue, a long post can help provide information and explanation that may otherwise be missing.

There seems to be a drift towards providing more information and, with that, comes greater levels of transparency. But that also brings with it additional demands, and requirements, for transparency. Expectations change through behaviour.

Short form

Being more robust or combative is also being tried in short form as well, through Twitter. It seems that HS2 was employing this approach to their communication when it recently issued a Twitter thread which focused on the challenge of the ‘lie’, as they said, over the destruction of woodland.

The word ‘lie’ is emotive, as it implies a deliberate attempt to mislead. In the context of a project this implies that someone, or maybe an organisation, campaigning against it is deliberately not telling the truth as a way of undermining the project as a whole…

This instantly raises hackles and could well undermine any attempts at collaborative working. Bad feelings and mistrust come to the fore. Does that really help anyone?

For any organisation to state that lies are being told means that they will absolutely have to defend that position. Are they really 100% it is a lie or is it a different interpretation of the facts?

Keir Starmer had a brush with this reality when he recently said of the Prime Minister that ‘the truth escapes him’, a very Parliamentary way of alleging a lie. But it turned out that Starmer had in fact ‘misheard’ the PM and was referring to another issue.

The Government has yet to really get to grips with what the post-Covid world is going to look like. That leaves policies and projects open to the criticism of using out-of-date data. That is especially the case for transport projects where Covid-19 may have changed permanently the evidence-based reasons upon which they rely. But even more fundamentally, we don’t yet have a clear understanding of what the deficit is going to look like.

The Government has a number of difficult choices to make over tax, spend, investment and timescales as well. Can any project really stand four-square behind all its data at this moment in time?

Whatever the drivers, the reality is that nuance is lost and a new combative era has been entered.

What you should expect

It is very likely that projects will change their communication over time. In the early days, they may choose to more circumspect, looking to reassure, build alliances and try to collaborate, where possible. This helps, not least, to minimise opposition but also means they hurdle any potential challenges in the courts or Parliament. Then, when they have their consent, they feel more able to be more robust in their communication.

If this sort of approach is seen to work then others may adopt it as well, especially across the public sector.

This all poses questions for projects, whether you are promoting or opposing them. What extent do you challenge in public?  What language should be used?  When?  What are the right channels?  Can you really stand behind the claims you make? Do you respond and how aggressive should you be?

If you are to accuse anyone of lying then you have to be very confident of your evidence, and your willingness to share it, otherwise it can backfire and does even more damage than any initial allegation. You also can’t overuse the word either.  Consistently accusing opponents of lying gives the wrong impression and builds a siege mentality.

We all need to pay attention to these new realities.

Many thanks to my colleagues Ian McCulloch and Oliver Spencer, who have worked on many large projects, for their thoughts on this issue.

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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