When modernising means regressing

I’ve been thinking a heck of a lot about digital engagement and communications to citizens and communities lately- it’s at the centre of everything I’m doing right now in my paid work, volunteer work and course learning. I am not a trained PR or media bod and frankly I don’t really understand traditional comms thinking or ways of working (I blogged about this over two years ago and feel pretty much the same way now) but I am learning so much about it all it is a little bit overwhelming. I’m aware I might be oversimplifying the work of my PR and media colleagues here but I think it’s because I don’t fully understand what they do or why they do what they do. I’d love to shadow someone doing this work for a bit or even just sit down and have a good thorough chat. Anyone game?

In addition to coming across a paper and article about modernising PR and communication teams written by CIPR President Stephen Waddington, I have learned about Nurture Development and their ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) blog and institute which contains this gem about the history of PR, propaganda, hidden persuaders, the rise of consumerism and engineering consent.

These two articles came to me through different avenues- Stephen Waddington’s paper through my daily social media news curation and the other from a public service reform agitator who is part of a small group taking the +Acumen Human Centred Design (HCD) course with me. At our first HCD session we did an icebreaker exercise during which we each shared why we’re on the course. I explained I’m taking the course because I’m a bit stuck in the way I’m thinking and working but also because I just don’t understand how public services have come so far away from designing for people and I’d like to help claw it back. For me this applies to service design and delivery as well as communications. How did public bodies get behind a wall over which they lob press releases, persuasion and manipulation at the public as opposed to working alongside them, listening to them and speaking with them?

Stephen Waddington’s article is fantastic and I am relieved to feel solidarity with a PR guy whose background in communications is far more traditional than mine, especially because what he’s suggesting isn’t what I’m seeing in practice from some members of his professional body- in fact I often feel quite isolated working alongside card carrying PR and media types because my way of working is so different to theirs. I’m organic and participative and this is not always a welcome approach among comms teams.

What strikes me most is what is being referred to in Stephen’s paper as modernising is actually regressing. It’s about getting back to participating in communities, building trust and creating relationships like in the good ‘ol days before folk felt the need to engineer what they said to each other or thinking that speaking to people via hacks and newspapers continues to be appropriate instead of just sharing and exchanging directly- owning our information and messages and putting them in the right places ourselves. The modern bit is the technology and using new tools, sure, but those are just enablers for outreach and discussion. There’s nothing new in engaging people genuinely and with care and respect, it’s just a shame it’s been trained out of some professional communicators.

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5 thoughts on “When modernising means regressing Leave a comment

  1. There is a danger that you are mistaking press and media relations for public relations. Public and Corporate relations will use the media as just a small element of the overall PR strategy. It often happens PR consultants are hired to keep clients out of the media or to help Boards understand variety of external audiences. For one client I had to put in an internal PR policy


    1. Thanks for this, Julian (I think your comment has been cut off a bit?) and I think you are right- I am probably mixing up or lumping together press and media relations public relations, however, I do think there is an element to both those professions that put things like mainstream media ahead of the man on the street. What do you think?


  2. Hi Leah,

    I really enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your outlook on the modern comms and PR industry. I work in a comms team for a social housing provider and am sometimes flummoxed by the way we have to do things, as dictated from on high. I was at a great event last week at which Antony Tiernan said that, ‘Comms people can often be closer to people.’ Obviously this isn’t always true, but I think there is something to it. But then we’re often kept away from the people we should be closest to. I hear a lot about our residents and what they do and what we do for them, but sometimes I feel a huge level of detachment from that. This is probably as much my fault as anyone else’s, and something I will work to remedy by volunteering more of my time in the community and engaging more with them whilst I’m here. Absurdly, I often think that once I’ve finished my 9-5 I’ve completed my day of work for the community, even if in that day I’ve worked for the organisation and not directly benefited the residents. I’m lucky in that my direct managers are brilliant and steering us in the right direction, but this hasn’t always been the case and certainly I’ve felt part of what you describe so well as (public services not designing around people).

    I’d like to think that the (very near) future looks a lot less hierarchical, with more value placed on the expertise of us comms people (and other specialists in general), so that we have the freedom to work creatively. In my case, I’d like to offer a more human voice rather than just lobbing the press releases and hiding what “the organisation” wants under a thin veil of froth. I believe that you’re absolutely right in saying that modernising is about getting back to the old ways of participation, creativity and trust-based relationships within communities.

    Thanks for sharing this blog post, it’s got me feeling re-focused on the right things at the start of my day.


    1. Thanks so much for this comment! I’m glad I got someone else thinking about all this. Since I published this post I’ve had some really great conversations with colleagues in government about getting closer to people, remembering who we are responsible to (citizens) and tapping into the rich seam of ideas, thoughts and experiences of the people at the very end of our services and policy decisions. How can we do well without knowing more about what they know and think? How can we communicate appropriately by being detached? Good luck and let me know how you get on!


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