Building trust is tough: dumping spin will help

I’ve been thinking recently about a meeting I covered as a young reporter, which has stayed with me for years since.

It was an unremarkable event in Sheffield, in around 2004, ahead of that year’s European elections. The British National Party (remember them?) was pressing to win a seat in Yorkshire and city leaders were spooked by the threat that presented.

Civic and political leaders came together at Sheffield City Hall to show a united front against the BNP and give personal statements denouncing them.

Although the story I wrote can’t be found online, it contained warnings from the then Sheffield Hallam MP Richard Allan, who urged people to vote against the BNP. If the BNP won in Yorkshire, the county would be branded the UK’s ‘racist capital’, signalling ‘big trouble’ for its reputation, Sheffielders were warned.

Did the warning work? Well, the BNP didn’t win in 2004 despite securing an increase of more than 100,000 votes. Their rise was concerning enough to warrant in-depth coverage from Rob Waugh in the Yorkshire Post. Despite the warnings, the BNP won a seat in Yorkshire five years later.

This happened before the days of social media. Facebook, which employs Mr Allan as its European policy director, did not feature in campaigning efforts. A media call at the city hall and a leafleting campaign were used to get ‘the message’ out. Although the tactic worked, the big effort needed to halt the far right’s advance didn’t happen.

My experience of the far right, as a journalist who wrote about them, will be familiar to that experienced by people who speak out about them today. I had my personal contact details and a picture of my home address posted on one of their websites.

Looking at what’s happening today, it’s impossible not to feel that things have become worse since those warnings. The far right is no longer in the shadows. A British MP has been killed and others are threatened for doing their jobs.

Anti-social media

More widely, it feels like pessimism and a lack of trust in politicians is a bigger problem than it was in 2004.

Twitter seems full of hacked off people, quick to criticise anyone for making comments that detract from their viewpoint. At its worst, this crosses the line into reprehensible, criminal behaviour.

In Bristol, where I work, Labour mayor Marvin Rees has received racist abuse and threats. The quality of public discourse in the city has become a source of concern for people who have seen and experienced treats and abuse.

People who do important work in Bristol – which has more than its fair share of trolls – say they won’t join conversations about things that are borderline controversial for fear of the reaction they will get. The feeling that (entirely reasonable) viewpoints are being drowned out in the noise is depressing to contemplate.

When I think about the messages given at Sheffield City Hall and all that’s happened since, it feels like we’ve failed to respond to the warnings. Two referendums on, for all the talk of collaboration and ‘reaching out’, politics is caught in a cycle of endless tactical squabbles in a battle for attention. All the while, people seem angrier.

Despite the calls for communities to ‘come together’ 15 years ago, and the potential for technology to connect us, it feels like we are becoming more disconnected and tribal.

When the opportunity for leaders to find common ground presents itself, protagonists double down and revert to key messages. This fuels the cynicism around them.

For all the talk of compromise, there’s little evidence that opposing factions are willing to give an inch. This must surely be the starting point for any progress to happen. If not now, when?

Road to rebuilding trust

‘Coming together’ – whatever that means – is going to be incredibly hard. Rebuilding trust will take longer than a six-week election campaign.

That’s a challenge that predates alarm bells about the BNP in 2004. It’s been fueled by decades of spin, scare stories and short-termism.

I’d like to think it can be tackled, though. It starts with some honesty, authenticity and listening to others’ point of view. As anyone who’s worked in crisis communications would know, it involves looking people in the eye and admitting that you’ve got some things wrong and explaining the steps you’re taking to put things right. Saying sorry (and meaning it) is a good starting point too.

Think that’s for the birds? Bear in mind that feeling of frustration when you next hear a nameless spokesperson say that the organisation they represent ‘takes these [findings/complaints/catastrophic failure] very seriously.’ People have stopped listening to this, if they ever did. Now’s the time to listen and make things (ahem) meaningful.

How can we hold an honest conversation with the public about these questions, which get lost in the noise about Brexit? The future of work, climate change, the housing crisis and an aging society all require urgent attention which today’s approaches don’t give justice to. Consultations and policy reviews are announced as ‘action’, when nothing has been agreed. Funding worth a few million pounds is trumpeted as being the answer to big issues (see homelessness, for example) when billions are needed instead.

If ‘taking back control’ means anything, finding new ways to respond to these concerns should be a serious thing. I’m optimistic about that, despite everything.

I’m working with organisations – universities, housing providers, energy companies – who strive to tackle these issues and will be around for many years to come. I’m looking forward to supporting them.

I’m hopeful that those who display emotional intelligence and think beyond the next set of headlines will show the way for others.

That’s what I hoped for in 2004, after the referendums in 2014 and 2016 and many times since. It feels long-overdue.

Photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash.

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