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Paul Masterman: Counteract ‘echo chambers’ with old-fashioned democracy

Paul Masterman
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The early months of 2017 have brought good and bad news for local government communications and the sector’s professional communicators.

First the good news: according to research by tech guru Carl Frey, the job of public relations specialist is one of the least likely to be replaced by robots.

Along with plumbers, chief executives and heart surgeons, the world apparently needs its PR people to have a human face. Not so much journalists; increasingly the algorithm and not the editor calls the shots on what news we read.

Communication demands high levels of social and creative intelligence if it is to work. It is an exchange of emotions and perceptions and should never be reduced to a robotic transaction.

The trouble is – and here’s the bad news – the humans don’t trust us anymore.

According to the latest trust barometer from PR firm Edelman, there has been a total collapse in trust in the public institutions – government, business and the media – that used to shape our society. Trust in these institutions in the UK is at a historic low at 29%.

As trust in authority drains away, it is being replaced by trust in those closest to us and most like us (ie the echo chamber); in the leak rather than the established media story; and in the plain speaking practiced by such as Mr Farage, Madame le Pen and the Donald.

Local government and its communicators need to wake up. For too long we have been complacent in the belief that local government is trusted more than central government, as if “they are not as bad as that other lot” was a cause for celebration.

In a climate of austerity, trust is the only currency we have left. Even if residents don’t like some of the decisions we have to make, at least they need to trust us to do our best for the communities we serve.

This is the modern communications challenge: communicating and behaving in a way that makes us worthy of people’s trust.

Yet too many councils still rely on the old, rusty levers of ‘lines to take’, communication by press release and using social media to broadcast messages rather than genuinely engage. The Edelman stats tell us this breeds contempt and then disengagement.

But there is another old-fashioned approach whose time may have come again: democracy. Councillors are often so authentic it hurts, are legitimate voices in their communities and are usually close to what matters to local people.

Perhaps it is time that comms people put the media release in the bin and started working with their local communities again.

Paul Masterman, independent consultant

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