Communication leaders tell own story behind post-trust credibility crisis

By Harley Dennett

Wednesday January 18, 2017

Tin Can Phone on Wooden Background.Communication concept

By now few could have missed the collapse of citizen confidence in their governments. Less well known is how systemic underinvestment in the very people in government with the skills to address that problem has mirrored that decline.

In the first research of its kind, amid the resurrection of anti-science, anti-elite and populist fear politics, public sector communication leaders and practitioners from 40 countries tell their story. It’s one of isolated and underskilled staff, using outdated communication models, who find themselves outclassed by any anonymous crank with a blog and too much time on their hands.

In the battle for hearts and minds, government has, in effect, brought a knife to a gun fight.

Using an audit of current communication practices, and the wisdom of a global advisory panel, including CEDA chief executive Professor Stephen Martin, the Government and Public Sector Practice at WPP has presented their findings to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.

The Leaders’ Report, authored by former UK government deputy director of communications Sean Larkins, found that politicians and policymakers are still largely ignorant of the role of communication as one of the key levers of government. As a consequence, those teams are among the first to be sapped of resources and left out of critical conversations of policy and strategy.

“Somehow we became very expendable,” explained one local practitioner, where the discipline is often the last to be brought in, after key decisions have been made or a crisis has hit. “Our influence has to start at the top because, as you know, a lot of difficult conversations need to be had.”

Getting back inside the tent would be hard enough even with the data to prove the impact of communication. However, evaluation of communication against policy objectives is the exception rather than the norm — 60% of the research’s participants measure only against their communication outcomes instead of policy outcomes.

Bad facts travel faster

Politicians at the helm can overestimate their knowledge of communication, due to their familiarity with traditional news media, warns Larkins. But the audience has already fractured. The new reality for communication leaders has changed, and the old strategies don’t work like they used to.

Technology has given citizens a powerful platform and the ability to filter out opposing views. Governments’ historical and collective grip on trust is gone. Misinformation spreads at ever-increasing speeds, the communication leaders acknowledge, corroborated by anonymous users and politicians alike.

The news media cannot be relied upon as a buffer against these bad facts. As one local communication leader explained, the bar for what constitutes a story has been lowered. “Most stories are framed as a conflict between right and wrong or good and bad. The issues we communicate are rarely this black and white.”

Government communication practitioners can’t always step in themselves and respond quickly enough to make a difference. One Australian respondent noted, with some irony, that things were looking up as he now needed approval from only three people before replying to a tweet.

Asked what was the greatest challenge to connecting with citizens, practitioners cited lack of capacity, with half leaning toward not enough people, and half leaning toward not enough of the right skills.

“Government belongs to the people but at the moment we only communicate with 30-35% of the people,” explained one.

The pace of change, especially technological, has vastly outpaced the training and resourcing offered to government communicators. Two days of training per year was the average offered to communication staff across the nations surveyed. Larkins adds that formal training alone is probably always going to be insufficient, as younger workers are increasingly more inclined to learn from doing, rather than in the classroom.

Australia, New Zealand and Singapore fared better than most, but only marginally.

Conversation, not broadcast

Government communication functions continue to rely on mass-media platforms, the researchers found — operating largely as tool for one-way dissemination, not engagement.

Citizen engagement was recognised as a priority among government communicators, but the leaders and practitioners disagreed over whether progress was being made. Only 14% of global respondents said they have received any training in that specific area, and many said government leaders didn’t see it as a “legitimate function” of communicators or were openly hostile seeing it “ceding control to the masses.”

Australia’s states and territories fared better again in the area of citizen engagement, where citizen juries and ‘YourSay’ style platforms are becoming increasingly part of everyday practice.

Larkins says governments are often telling the public the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their plans, but forgetting the ‘why’. That simple omission, in an age of public distrust, suggests at some level the feeling is mutual.

“When people feel ignored, unheard and unrepresented, they turn to alternative sources of information,” Larkins says.

Come back tomorrow for part two, in which Sean Larkins tells The Mandarin where some governments are building engagement success with data, participation power and the missing ingredient from most communication efforts.

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Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen
4 years ago

Hmm, what does this report remind me of? A report by an organisation selling a set of services, purporting to represent the professions (such as they are) behind those services.

And the recommendation? They’re underfunded, there aren’t enough of them, and they’re not given enough seniority in the hierarchy.

Communications has grown within government from virtually nothing a couple of generations ago to being peppered throughout the bureaucracy.

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