Building trust takes more than soundbites

I’ve thought fitfully about relationships and how they shape our views during this grinding start to the year.

They keep families, teams, political organisations and communities of interest together. They’re imperfect, occasionaly fractious and sometimes maddening. But we would not be ourselves without them.

Connections and shared experiences that make life worth living have festered on the backburner since March last year. No amount of Zoom catch ups can fill the void this creates in our lives.

This is the context to my becoming more anxious with feelings that, for all the benefits that technology brings, people aren’t connecting with others who hold different views to theirs.

Noise infects public discourse and intimidates some who would otherwise engage. ‘Conversation’, or what passes for it, becomes a binary online shouting match without end. We’ve seen it with Brexit, and with the COVID-19 response. Misinformation, while always with us, has spread online to an extent that tests public bodies and risks lives.

From respect to hostility   

This has been on my mind for ages. Then a letter from former US President George HW Bush to his White House successor Bill Clinton in 1993 landed in my Twitter timeline. Take a look below.

“I am rooting hard for you.” Respectful and gracious in defeat, the letter feels lightyears from the abrasive tone adopted by Donald Trump and used in so much of today’s public discourse.

Closer to home, Matthew Syed wrote in The Sunday Times (£) about how our tendency to share headlines without bothering to grasp an argument’s wider context is debasing public debate. He cites Piers Morgan’s recent interview with retired judge Lord Sumption, where a complex argument clumsily delivered became a soundbite that went viral. Wider understanding of the issues under discussion is the casualty as everyone rushes to take sides.

Needless to say, Morgan responded robustly and in a way that proved Syed’s original assertion.

Syed will surely have known that was coming. I hope Morgan took two minutes to read under the headline before firing off two angry tweets in response.

Damaging trust with spin  

I struggle to articulate a view in this post about exactly what connects these events in my mind, other than an unease that the desire to hold the line and not back down is a barrier to understanding others. We’re always on and connected, yet disconnected from the change happening in front of our eyes.   

Soundbites have always been around. It’s right to want to convey complex information in ways that people understand. But this isn’t the same as spinning the data or misrepresenting an issue for a headline. Those areas of (mis)practice fuel divisions and misunderstandings that bring us to where we are today.

If the last year demonstrated anything, it’s shown how important trust is. In that context, Edelman’s Trust Barometer is a depressing (if unsurprising) read. Trust appears to have taken a hit across the board, amidst talk of ‘information bankruptcy’. Others write about this well. I share it here merely to underline my point about the state that we find ourselves in.

Context matters, as does being straight with people that some things are complicated. Relationships are founded on these things.

Campaigning for local areas

Soon, we may embark on local elections as the country (hopefully) emerges from lockdown. Campaigns may be hampered by a lack of time to knock on doors, but the social media battle hits its stride soon.

Bristol’s online debates will contain plenty of unpleasant comments, often posted from nameless accounts. I know of people in Bristol who no longer engage in conversations online out of concern about the hassle they may get. That they feel shut out of conversations about where they live and work sits uneasily with Bristol’s image as an open, tolerant city. If we’re not careful, we’ll be left with an echo chamber, devoid of the diversity of thought which is essential to building respect and trust.

I’ll come back to this topic in a future post and hope that candidates and campaign teams resist the urge to go into online combat. Research suggests there are limits to mobilising online supporters that excludes other more representative voices on either side of the debate from the conversation. This needs to change if we’re to step back from where we are.  

Building trust in communities

This matters hugely to me in the work we do every day. It matters in our conversations with communities about developments proposed in their areas. Some will be concerned, and others may not want to see change happen. We approach those concerns respectfully as part of a wider conversation. This is not an exercise in persuasion or spin as much as it is an effort to build understanding and trust. We will never get there by slagging each other off online.

We may get somewhere over time by actively listening to different views and being prepared to respond meaningfully to them. It will surely also help to check the veracity of what we’re reading before adding to the flow of online outrage.

Is this too much to hope for? A couple of comments under a post in made on the brilliant Facebook community of practice for comms people suggested it may be. But building trust starts here for me. If you accept that it’s worth taking time to check an issue before spouting off about it, surely it’s the only choice to make.

With trust comes legitimacy. Good comms people strive for this outcome every day.

They also know that we won’t get there with soundbites alone.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

PR disaster? Good comms people are proving their worth

Good clear comms has proved its worth

How was 2020 for you? If you work in comms, it’s probably been a mixed bag at best.

COVID-19 wreaked huge damage on parts of the sector, with jobs and businesses lost. Many who stayed in work, in the public and private sector, were much busier and more stressed. They worked under a cloud of uncertainty, responding to constantly changing events.

There will be learning points from this. On balance though, comms professionals can be proud of how they supported the COVID-19 response. They helped organisations adapt, kept the public and stakeholders informed and saved lives. Need convincing? Check out these examples of how the NHS is responding across all these fronts on #FuturePRoof’s website.

It’s a great shame, then, to see comments about ‘PR disasters’ when mistakes happen. It featured in commentary on the government’s COVID response, around issues created and managed (badly) by people like Dominic Cummings. Its cousin – the ‘comms failing’ – was name-checked when local leaders raised legitimate concerns at being out of the loop on important policy announcements affecting their areas.

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My three most read blogs of 2020

Three balloons

Well, that was a year, wasn’t it!? Although I won’t be sorry to see the end of 2020, it’s brought what’s important into sharper focus.

COVID was immensely challenging, and continues to be. Brexit is distressing, but I have come to terms with it and hope we can start to move on from the sniping. Plate-spinning was relentless and exhausting. I’ve missed people. I can’t wait to see family, friends, colleagues and clients again. And I feel encouraged by a growing willingness to rethink how we live, work, travel and consume stuff.

I’ve written more regularly on this blog and for other titles in 2020, after a couple of years when I wrote very little. Along with daily exercise and music, it’s kept me clear headed and in reasonably good spirits. I will hold onto those habits in 2021.

I’m pleased by the level of engagement in the blogs and am grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to read them this year. I hope you’ve found them useful if you have. Below are the three most read posts from the last year. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read, share or comment on these and other posts. It means a lot.

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Five ways public relations can make places happen

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in places and place-making. Maybe you work for a government body, housebuilder or housing provider. You could be involved in new development, regeneration or infrastructure.

This work often sits in the context of ‘delivery’ or hitting targets and numbers. While important in itself, it often misses the bigger picture around why this work matters. It matters because it makes great places happen. Done well, this transforms areas and improves people’s lives.

Throughout the disruption caused by COVID-19, good, agile communication is helping to make places happen across the country. Every project is different, and there’s no template to fit its needs. But here are five things we advocate through our work to make places happen that keep our clients moving forward at this challenging time.

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How to tell your story better: ask ‘why?’

If you work in comms, you’ll know that explaining your job to other people is challenging at times. This isn’t the same as explaining what you do, which can also be hard. *

Explaining the work of the organisation you represent is also tough, not least because it’s not just about you. It takes time navigating different perspectives. It requires understanding of the organisation and its key audiences. The explanation must be clear, memorable and relevant.

And (deep breath) it needs approving before it sees the light of day.

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Three points for government comms – and three for me – during lockdown

This week marks the start of a new financial year for us at Social, and my first as managing director of our South West division. I enter it with mixed emotions.

On the upside, I feel elated at our achievements in this most challenging of years. Our team doubled its size and turnover in 2020. We raised the bar in the quality of our work and the type of clients we’re supporting. We’ve adjusted brilliantly to enforced changes in how we work. We’ve been flexible, empathetic and innovative in supporting our clients.

While I don’t take any of this for granted, it is tempered by sadness, anger and despondency at the national response to the pandemic. As a comms person, I’ve despaired at what I’ve seen and heard about events leading up to the latest lockdown announcement.

In an attempt to set this out in coherently, I’ve split this post into two sections: three things I’d change about the government’s handling of this crisis and three things I will do myself. It’s not intended as a plan; it’s more a way to collate my thoughts and feelings to help me to look ahead with clarity.   

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