Expect the unexpected

bobbyleachniagarafalls

So, 2016. Bloody hell though eh?

Its been a maelstrom of political earthquakes and celebrity deaths but more than ever it’s the year we learned to expect the unexpected and NEVER say never.

In communications and PR terms it feels a bit like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel – dangerous, disorienting, at times bruising and leaving many wondering what the point  of it was. I only use this analogy because I’m currently reading The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson, which chronicles this unusual and often fatal craze from the turn of the century (more on this later).

Depending on your political views it may feel like we’re all heading down the metaphorical waterfall, but the last 12 months could have a lasting impact on the way we communicate and influence our publics. Here are a few scattergun thoughts in no particular order.

1 Trust in authority and institutions has been shattered with the established hierarchies and rules around who the public believes turned upside down. People are looking elsewhere when it comes to traditional sources of advice – either that or the messages simply aren’t believed.

That has big implications for anybody who works in communications in the public sector and we should take time to reflect on what we can learn about delivering important campaigns around things like health, care or other key public services.

It’s not just about the way publics think about once trusted ‘authority’ figures or our formerly revered institutions, but how society now frames entire conversations. Whereas previously people may not have agreed with one side or another there was always an established set of parameters deemed acceptable. The last year has shown us that is no longer the case and anything now goes.

2 This brings us onto what is already becoming a hackneyed phrase: Post Truth. This seems to be the political worlds answer to the death of spin. Groups and individuals can now (knowingly) say things that clearly aren’t true or create a reality where they perhaps genuinely believe them to be true and hope they can simply wish it to be so. In the post fact world people don’t really need to be right, just able to create an illusion that is more desirable than the status quo. Check the documentary Hypernormalisation on iplayer for a much smarter historical analysis on this.

3 There’s been plenty written about the changing nature of social media and the echo chamber many of us now live in and while that’s significant the issue of validation is also important in understanding how modern communications now work.

Social norms and a the feeling of validation by peer groups is something that will probably be the subject of thousands of PHD papers and is the key to many of the most successful marcomms work online. Think about the reasons people post pictures of their achievements, work outs, relationships or even failures and so much of it seems to about the need for validation or shared viewpoints. It reminds me of a quote from Mad Men:

 “do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

4 But how does it feel? Somewhere along the way we lost faith in the power of stories and feelings and started to rely too heavily on statistics and facts and good faith. The ‘sick of experts’ claim was widely scorned (including by me) but in another sense it’s the ultimate example of what we should have already known as communicators – Feelings Trump facts every time (pun fully intended).

Gut feelings, emotions and feelings are what the best campaigns always tap into. That should be no surprise

5 Even over the last couple of years we’re seeing huge societal changes that can affect public services and particularly rising expectations. In health for example we see people in A&E who expect to be treated immediately for even the most minor complaint. Some of it is about rising demand but some of it is a growing expectation of instant service on demand. It’s a challenge we need to better understand in times of growing austerity.

The other thing that has made 2016 so unusual is that the most of the experts, pollsters and established commentariat have largely been wrong in predicting outcomes.

In 1911 Englishman Bobby Leech became the first man to survive the 167 foot drop over Niagara Falls after throwing himself over in a barrel (the first person to accomplish the feat was Annie Taylor a decade earlier). Despite only the most basic safety equipment he survived the injures sustained in the stunt after six long months in hospital.

During the publicity tour celebrating his achievement he slipped in the street on a discarded Orange peel and died from complications after the fall. Expect the unexpected.

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