More Than Words – A Review of Strategic Communications

The pandemic has thrown into relief the inadequacy of public messaging, particularly those associated with public health communications and marketing. The challenge of the pandemic, and the impact that it’s having in terms of lost lives and the diminishment of our standards of living, means that we need to quickly learn from the many mistakes of national and local governance and public service resourcing. Any review of the pandemic response, however, should not only examine the way that our public services and governance processes have failed, but also how the communications and public messaging systems have let us down. There has been too much focus on mass media marketing and behavioural sciences, and not enough focus on creative and participative citizenship.

To be blunt, the mass communications industry has been found wanting and needs major reform. These reforms are essential if community-focussed communications are to play any kind of role in social rebuilding once the pandemic has eased. I’ve been reflecting on these issues for several years, but the pandemic has now accelerated and increased the urgency with which these changes must be discussed and acted on. It is necessary that as we seek to build back better, in terms of our public services, we must also come up with some new ideas about how we can engage with one another through – and with – our media. There are many communications problems that have been lying dormant and have been ignored, These now need our urgent attention. What once could be debated and considered over a decade, now needs to be revised and implemented with urgency in the coming months.

In 2019 Alice Sachrajda and Lena Baumgartner wrote a report about the need for a more strategic way of thinking by social sector organisations when it comes to communications. The More Than Words Report, published by Global Dialogue, was an examination of the way that social movements are influenced and shaped by the communications models they deploy. What Sachrajda and Baumgartner sought to do in their report, was to shift the needle when defining and shaping communications processes as practiced by many social sector organisations. From established transactional and outcome-oriented communications models, Sachrajda and Baumgartner sought to call-up a model of communication that is defined by what we care about and what we wish to influence, and which is capable of bringing about positive social change.

Sachrajda and Baumgartner discussed how many researchers, activists and campaigners are embracing different disciplines and approaches to communications, such as cognitive psychology, behavioural science and linguistics, in order to “consider how best to reach out to audiences and appeal to hearts and minds.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 4). This revised strategic view of communications, as they call it, suggests that an evolution in communications thinking must take place, especially if we are to harness the potential of the new and dispersed forms of mutual organisation that are increasingly prevalent in the social sector. As these mutual aid groupings are entwined with the rapidly evolving forms of social media that are reshaping the social world, and the way that we connect with one another, the argument for change becomes ever more compelling

For Sachrajda and Baumgartner

“The growth in the area of strategic communications is simultaneously burgeoning with potential and bewildering with possibility. This is exciting and challenging in equal measures: funders are trying to determine how to invest in this space; communications specialists are experimenting with how to get their messages heard; and charities are left wondering how to best engage with the rapidly developing area of strategic communications.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 4).

I want to add a couple of thoughts that use the work of Sachrajda and Baumgartner as a kick-back point, but which pushes them, perhaps, in a different direction. A direction which explores the need for a community-focussed communication model that is able to draw different conclusions than those offered by Sachrajda and Baumgartner, and many others who are working as comms advocates in the social sector.

I agree with Sachrajda and Baumgartner that voluntary sector organisations have tended to communicate in technocratic and directive ways. This is common in most mass media communications practice, and has been well established in the corporate and public sectors for many years. The dominant model of advertising and mass consumerism, as Theodore Levitt once said, suggests that there is little difference between a lipstick sold by a street vendor, and a titan of finance trading pensions or insurance from the top-floor executive suits of New York skyscrapers. They are both fulfilling a human need, and are providing goods and services in the marketplace. The are both amoral acts, according to Levitt, and are defined in culturally relativistic terms. What modern consumer transactionalism focuses on, Levitt suggests, is the holes that people want, and not the drill bits that they must purchase to create them.

The social sector, which includes charities, civic society organisations, mutual aid and community groups, has for some time been encouraged to adopt similar working models to the advertising and mass communications industry, when it comes to their public communications. Training sessions about communications for community groups, such as those run by Locality or the Media Trust, for example, are bolstered with a mass communications and marketing expertise. They focus on digital strategies, marketing planning, media performance training, and activities that are designed to promote the key messages of the participating organisations. This is an approach that is based on targeted communications activity within the established media paradigm. They are aimed at largescale broadcasters, media publishers and mass marketing activities that seek to engender an audience response through the conduits of mass communications platforms. Social sector organisations are asked to consider how their activities operate, not in terms of civic empowerment, citizenship or activism, but as consumers and audiences in a passive relationship with their service, information or entertainment provider of choice.

At the heart of the mass communications process is the tried and tested model of audience engagement. The audience engagement paradigm separates experienced and professionalised media producers, marketing experts and advisors, from their clients and activist base. These experts work tirelessly create and distribute media content, stories and messages, which satisfy the perceived needs of the organisation. Think of the petitions that circulate on social media. Click and register and you have engaged with your topic of concern. These messages are demographically aligned, and are based on extended market research. They are selected because they resonate with the defined target audience, as demonstrated by tests in focus groups, such as those most likely to give money, or follow through with a ‘call to action.’ The messages are aligned with the perceived needs and values of the audience.

To be an effective communicator, then, means that a social sector organisation has adopt the trappings of professional expertise, the mannerisms of the comms-pro, and the outlook of the campaigning influencer. Luckily, there is an army of consultant organisations willing to help. There are many media consultants who offer training in strategic communications thinking and organisational management systems who can help improve the core message and its reach into increasingly labyrinthine audiences. By following the guidance of these experts charities, community groups and civic society groups will be able to demonstrate where and how they are meeting the priorities of their funders, the public that endorses them, and the service users and clients that depend on their services.

Sachrajda and Baumgartner start from the premise that there is a clear need for change in social sector thinking when it comes to communications.

“Innovation in communications offers an opportunity for change in the sector at a time when it faces a plethora of challenges relating to public mistrust, political uncertainty, rising inequality and social disadvantage. And while questions remain about how to build up robust evidence, spread best practice, ensure cross-sector learning and join up existing communications initiatives, we recognise there is much potential and good practice.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 4).

The term ‘strategic communications’, as used here, has gained prominence in the voluntary sector in recent years. It is used to describe, according to Sachrajda and Baumgartner, how social sector organisations can promote “purposeful communication,” which sets out to achieve pre-determined objectives. The More Than Words report draws on examples from a range of sectors that employ strategic communications (such as marketing, advertising and the commercial sector) to illustrate how strategic communications “can encompass a range of styles and approaches, including verbal and nonverbal communication.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 4).

It’s difficult to disagree with Sachrajda and Baumgartner when they state that

“The voluntary sector abounds with creativity, innovation, passion, inspirational ideas and good intentions. But we have a tendency to project our messages, to shout about our causes and to communicate in a way that makes others feel overwhelmed, targeted, guilty and tangled up in deciphering the problems, rather than motivated towards enacting pragmatic solutions. Our greatest assets are the resilience, kindness, compassion and openheartedness of the people who work within the sector. These are gifts that can be cultivated and enhanced, creating movements connected by shared purpose.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 8).

Where I wish to diverge from the ethos of this report, however, is in how these ideas are achieved in practice, and on what basis they are undertaken. Sachrajda and Baumgartner argue that a successful social sector communications strategy must be based on listening, particularly as a method of engagement that seeks to explore common connections between the organisation and those who are motivated to support it. As Sachrajda and Baumgartner point out, “an approach that begins with listening is more likely to achieve this objective and will respect and honour the storytellers themselves.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 9). The question is, though, what form does this listening take, and how do different people articulate their experience through different forms of storytelling?

Sachrajda and Baumgartner recommend following the “Heartwired” approach, as advocated by the American advocacy movement Wonder. This approach is less about trying to convince someone why they might be wrong, and more about seeking to understanding the deeper feelings that foster an alignment with a sense of social identity, their cultural and civic values, and which draws on the lived experiences of the people who are affected by an issue. As Sachrajda and Baumgartner recall, the Heartwided approach seeks to create change “from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 9). But what can market segmentation and demographic analysis do to activate this process? Why does having information about supporters, clients and advocates for a cause make the communications process any better?

On one level this approach allows the management teams who work in social sector organisations to demonstrate that they are meeting their objectives, and that they are reaching the demographically targeted audience that has been identified in their research, and that they are doing this efficiently. My question, however, is are they making any difference in practice by following this approach? Are they bringing about lasting social change? Raising awareness about an issue is one thing, building the capacity and capability for change is vastly different. The pandemic has demonstrated this writ large. Awareness of the pandemic is almost total in its public sweep, yet the fact that many people are still being infected and are dying from Covid-19 complications suggests that social change is much harder to bring about in practice.

It is said that a well-crafted message can sway an audience to think differently, but this is a circular argument, and not one that is easily demonstrated with empirical examination. Opinion forming is often achieved superficially, but it is vastly different from deep rooted behaviour change. We’ve seen in the pandemic here in the UK that the only way to bring about significant behaviour change is to impose draconian lockdowns. In the UK we’ve had to impose preventative measures in order to minimise the transmission of the virus because messaging by itself hasn’t worked.

People might be thinking differently about an issue when it has been inflated in their social consciousness through a well executed marketing campaign, but will they act differently in a meaningful and practical sense? Merely seeking to persuade the persuadable, and win people over to a cause they already care about – protecting the NHS and saving lives for example – will easily sway an audience, but it is nowhere near sufficient to bring about long-lasting social change and behaviour change that addresses the embedded causes of social disfunction. Public education in the UK of sanitation and health is vastly lower than the Nordic countries, where it is a core part of school and ongoing public health education.

We therefore need a different communications approach. An approach that is backed up with comprehensive education, civic empowerment and resources/platforms that people can own, control and take responsibility for. We need a community-focussed communications approach that empowers people to create content and share it on their own terms, not as defined by communications experts or regulators. The behaviourist model of communication, which has been applied disastrously during the pandemic here in the UK, is clearly of questionable value. We should have little time now for “ ‘pre-suasion’, ‘nudging’ and ‘priming’” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 10). We should have little time for any model of communications that suggests that we all think, understand and act according to the same psychological processes.

While it is well established that cultural and social circumstances shape our patterns of communication and engagement, it is too often assumed that our cognitive and symbolic process are uniform and undifferentiated. Our mind is too often said to operate like a computer, with software that reproduces similar conscious or unconscious biases in our cognition (which are called software or hardware faults). What these models don’t allow for, moreover, is that we are each defined by a shared but unique psyche and symbolic collective consciousness that demonstrates different forms and levels of consciousness, and which interacts and changes as we move through our lives, and are shaped by our experiences.

It is not enough to learn our messaging prowess from the popular culture that we see around us, and in which we are submerged. We must, instead, get inside the creative space that we can open up for making content and sharing it for ourselves. In doing this we may develop an understand how difficult professional communication is, what its limitations are, and what its joys might be when it works creatively and constructively. Just having media given to us as passive consumers of streaming services, denies creative expression, it denies civic empowerment, and it stops us from learning and therefore empathising with others. Sachrajda and Baumgartner suggest that “authenticity is paramount in communications,” but we have to ask, what makes something authentic? Who defines authenticity? There is the old joke about politicians, that when they have learned to fake sincerity have got it made.

We can’t and should not take the risk of engender trust in our one-way system communications system to a small group of people. Especially when it’s a system where people are conceived simply as an audience awaiting content to be fed to them, however positive and feel-good this content might be. We might judge this content to be well meaning and have emotional resonance, but it tends to evaporate once the moment is over. Christmas advertising, for example, vanishes from our television screens as soon as the gift buying season is at an end, to be replaced with holiday adverts, or something else that is a priority in the endless consumer cycle.

Rather than going with the grain of strategic communications, then, I want to propose a counter-initiative model. I want to propose that we use un-strategic communications. Un-strategic communications don’t have any purpose or point of value other than that which is are discovered and created by the people engaged in the process of crafting and sharing the media they choose to work with. Forget gifting people with a message that is created for them, how about empowering them, and resourcing them with the capacity to make and share their own messages? How about asking people to make and create their own media based on their own life experiences, and not according to what has been ‘framed’ for them in advance by a marketing or social change agency? We don’t need to provide people with competing megaphones, as Sachrajda and Baumgartner suggest, we really need to repurpose and redefine the space that we have available to us, so that all voices are heard, and none are ignored or drowned out.

Communicating authentically means empowering people to create and share their own media content in a safe space, where all have access to the communications process, and non are dismissed, overlooked, marginalised or side-lined. It’s not enough to employ better qualified communications and marketing professionals in social sector organisations. Instead, we need to employ community media facilitators and teachers who can show people how to make their own content, on their own terms, and in accordance with their own values.  

I agree with Sachrajda and Baumgartner that a “values driven approach builds credibility” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 13), but what values are we talking about? What do we understand as a set of cognisant values, and how are these values shaped by their context, time and culture? Who gets to say which values are more important than other values? Sachrajda and Baumgartner are right, the shift that we need to see in community-focussed communications is towards values such as “hospitality, safety, care, love, kindness, family, friendship, sharing, reciprocity, hope, welcome, openness, generosity, trust and pride” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 14). But none of these values are themselves value free.

Values, and the perception and understanding of value cannot be pre-made, pre-defined and readymade so they can be whacked in the oven. They are not discreate points in a mechanical value system, which balances and moves them about according to their pre-determined properties. As Sachrajda and Baumgartner correctly state,

“Our shared values form intangible points of connection. We can do our best to articulate our values in words, but ultimately, they are deep feelings that act like a strong magnetic force for every one of us. We are drawn towards the values that resonate with our intuitive personal beliefs and feelings.” (Sachrajda & Baumgartner, 2019, p. 16).

I’ve written elsewhere about the process of socialmeaning, in which our comprehension of the world and ourselves is reshaped by our engagement in the world, and as that engagement changes so to our comprehension changes, and vice versa. The social field, this strong magnetic force, as Sachrajda and Baumgartner call it, has to be understood in different ways. It is multidimensional, indeterminate, and subject to change by forces that we do not anticipate. Attempts to win people over to a point of view based on emotion is a neutral process that works both ways. Emotional attachment to Donald Trump, for example, and the conspiracy theory that the presidential election was stolen from his supporters uses these techniques to devastating effect.

We must be forearmed and ready to deal with those who may attempt to capture and use these techniques against us. The shadow of positive social change is regressive and reactionary social change, and advocates of negative social change are often willing to use these techniques for corrupt and corrupting purposes before they are fully understood. It’s better, therefore, to decentralise and pluralise the communications process, and particularly, to empower people to make as much of their media for themselves.

Undoubtedly, we will find this approach to media wanting in practice. It will be crude, loutish and prone to conspiracy theorising, but that’s only because we are not yet investing heavily in media education, media accountability and media reform. Strategic communication is pointless if it is embedded in an existing power structure that is corrupted by money and power. That concentrates ownership and control in the hands of a few. That denies people a civic voice in the process of decision making about what stories and news they want told, and which ignores their practical concerns, artificially foisting a false balance ethos that betrays empiricism and objectivity. We can’t de-politicise this process.

Indeed, we must go the other route and open up each local and low-level discussion of media sharing and expression to the political process, based on human rights of freedom of expression and participation. An authoritative message will resonate as authentic with listeners if they are educated and empowered to comprehend and understand the process that produced that message. If there is doubt about the veracity of a message, then because it is facilitated through trust and as verifiable information, any educated population with the power to challenge the dissemination of this misinformation will be a far more effective remedy that any legislation that governments or companies might seek to impose (a blockchain technology is realised in practice this needs to be examined).

While we still need to move beyond short term thinking, as Sachrajda and Baumgartner rightly argue, I’d go even further. We need to replace strategic communication with community-focussed communication, and rather than worrying about the comms experts and professionals getting the terms of this communication process right, we should build an empowered citizenship model of communication that views media as an integral right and responsibility of all citizens. Only then will we sustain conversations about change, and only then will be bring that change about.

Sachrajda, A., & Baumgartner, L. (2019). More Than Words – How Communicating our Shared Values and Forging Mutual Connections Can Bring Hope for a New Tomorrow. G. Dialogue.


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