Messages and stories (1)

In recent years Folkestone where I live has been attempting an ambitious arts-led regeneration programme, enabled in the first instance by the generosity of our resident billionaire Roger de Haan. I was at a meeting last night called to let people air their views on what’s going wrong in the Creative Quarter, which is the focus of that regeneration.

A few directors of the Creative Foundation were present. The nub of the complaint from the floor was that after happy beginnings a gulf had opened up between the the Foundation and the community it was trying to serve.

I’m not going to go into all the local political arguments but in response to a complaint that no one from the Foundation appeared at private views or other Quarter events, one of the directors pleaded lack of time.

This was perhaps honest of him, but it wasn’t well judged. In PR terms it was certainly “off message” because what he communicated was not honesty, but the fact that he had more urgent priorities than the engagement of the local artists and retailers who are working in the Creative Quarter. It didn’t go down well. This set me thinking about PR and its traditional stock-in-trade – the message.

For some time in my professional work I’ve been advocating the importance of honesty and transparency in communication, particularly for internal communication when you are concerned to engage staff – though it’s also relevant to external communication where the relationship between organisation and customer is not simply transactional (ie where there are emotional ties around the notion of “brand” rather than a simply rational exchange of goods and money). I would argue against the old wisdom that effective communication meant deciding on your “message” and remorselessly hammering it home at every opportunity. I’d argue that this message-driven approach mostly alienates people, making them feel they are being “communicated at” rather than “with”.

I’d acknowledge that in the political sphere, the dumb filter of mass media has forced politicians to face every interview with a clear and simple message which they must stick to in the hope that it will get through the filter. It’s cheapened political discourse in the process, but that’s the reality politicians have to contend with.

Equally at the meeting last night it’s clear that the director’s honesty was misjudged. In other respects the directors had found an appropriate honesty: they acknowledged that mistakes had been made and said they would try to put them right in the future.

But even this honesty was not particularly satisfying. I’ve come to think that effective communication is all about stories, and the Creative Foundation’s problem is that it has in a sense “lost the plot”. The truth is that the Foundation is doing a great deal of good work, but has stopped telling itself the bigger story (so misjudgements are being made) and critically has stopped telling the wider community that story. Into the vacuum has slipped a mish mash of half truths and malicious gossip.

That bigger story is not a work of fiction. It’s about the reality of what you do, and that’s where the honesty really matters. I think when an organisation understands its own story then individuals can find their own words to tell it without being forced into crass message-speak. I suspect the whole vision/values thing so beloved of brand thinkers was a misguided way of getting at the same truth, and in the next instalment will say more about what this could mean for organisations trying to understand their identities and command the assent of their staff and their other stakeholders.

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