Why the public shouldn’t hate ‘comms’: an open letter to Matthew Parris

Matthew Parris wrote on Saturday that people ‘hate comms’ for its slickness and vacuuity. This is my response to his comment.

Dear Matthew,

I enjoy your writing about politics, and the Conservative party you represented in Parliament during less febrile times.

Your analysis about the lack of new ideas in British politics today strikes a chord with me. I also share your despair at how this is playing out in the turgid Tory leadership contest.

You were right to warn on Saturday that the party is heading towards the abyss as things stand.

I was also struck by your comment about the comms profession’s supposed role in the campaigns, when saying:

“[Rishi Sunak] has fallen prey to the vultures of what we now call “comms” — professional communications advisers. A breed with a blind spot when it comes to the one truth about comms that matters: that the 21st-century British public hate comms, spot it a mile off, and walk away.”

What the public really hates

As a comms person, I’d agree with your sentiment that people hate spin without substance. You may be surprised to know that much of our time is spent advising against this approach.

What you point to is more of a cultural and leadership concern than a ‘comms’ issue. We will never know whether a ‘comms’ person was even in the room to advise on Rishi Sunak’s campaign video. They wouldn’t speak to explain their roles in the process.

In my experience, people don’t hate ‘comms’. They value good comms which serves a purpose.

What they hate is feeling like they’re being misled or lied to. They hate politicians and organsations ‘holding the line’, irrespective of the questions. They hate people in leadership positions ducking responsibility for their actions. And they hate the empty pledges – from ‘world leading’ to branded buses.

I’ve banged on about this for years and feel like we’ve been moving to this point since the 1990s. Comms is not blameless in any of this. But the problem goes well beyond our profession.

Speaking up for comms

Our industry is broad. The public relations profession employs more than 90,000 people alone and is a key part of the UK’s world-leading creative industries.

Working at pace with integrity, over the last two years comms professionals played a key role in supporting public bodies and businesses during the most challenging period we have known.

We kept people and businesses updated during the coronavirus outbreak, often translating complex information at very short notice.

Comms people helped businesses and public bodies reorganise and stay connected with customers and stakeholders.

They were the voices at organisations’ shoulders advising them on the right course or action, rather than the action that looks right.

And we’re the ones who people contact for information about the organisations we represent, because we are trusted with this responsibility.

I would never apologise for wanting to present information about those organisations clearly and positively. But we also understand damage that spin can do.

That’s why I share your frustration at how the leadership contest is developing. You should know that many in our profession feel the same – as the response below from some to your piece shows.

Many of us strive for a better way of doing things, without the spin.

I hope decent comms professionals are more involved in government in future. If they are, I’m sure you would see an improvement.  

And if that happens, I hope it gives you cause to be more upbeat about a profession that is doing important work, without fanfare, every day.

Kind regards

Ben

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash.

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