2 The Issue Of Trust
A few years ago I came close to losing faith in the discipline of communications. Problems arose that our hitherto powerful comms methods seemed unable to address. How come? We had the messages, we had the reach and the frequency.
Unfortunately we had lost the trust.
Working in government comms for over 20 years it’s easy to forget about trust. Generally, people trust government departments and agencies (politicians still have a problem, of course).
Even in these cynical times, the vast majority of Australians don’t believe the conspiracy theories about fluoridating water or monitoring people’s data. Even the biggest conspiracy theory of all regarding climate change seems in the process of abandonment by all but the most committed deniers.
Nonetheless, government can lose the trust of the community when it’s seen to be implementing a controversial policy, or looks confused, disorganized or lazy. In my own Road to Damascus experience, government was seen to be wrong-headed, high handed and invasive. After 12 months of this there was very little trust left.
What I learned from this situation is that sometimes you have to acknowledge that your comms isn’t going to be enough, stop trying to persuade people and start engaging with them.
Since then I’ve been trained in engagement techniques, which I’ve used in a variety of situations. I now see comms and engagement related, and complementary in many ways, but as coming from very different places.
Communications – at least as I was taught it 20 years or so ago – works from the premise that the communicator acts on a target audience. The basis of engagement, on the other hand, is about working with the stakeholders.
Once I started thinking along these lines, it really struck me that communications was somewhat warlike – think of the language – ‘target audiences’, ‘campaigns’, ‘strategy’, ‘penetration’, ‘hits’. We’re not such a violent lot really, but I think communications is in the business of seeking power over people – their knowledge, their attitudes, their choices – by firing off our messages at them. Certainly those of us in government are doing this for the greater good.
On the other hand, with engagement we start from the position that we don’t have a monopoly of truth or moral authority. We have stuff to bring, you have stuff to bring; let’s both bring our stuff and see what we can achieve.
History – even fairly recent – suggests that government could once get its way because it was ‘the expert’, it had the power, and it was perceived by the community to have a mandate – and the community by and large felt it had to accept what it did.
That era is over, and governments now have to accept that they too need social license to operate.
Communications is still powerful and hopefully, for government, a powerful force for good, but it only works when the trust is there. When trust is lost, comms loses its mojo and becomes just words. And that’s where engagement comes in.