Monday, 9 January 2017

Can an over-worked message backfire?

I’ve noticed a trend in communications from large corporations and organisations. Their messages come across as corporate, impersonal and devoid of any human emotion. And I’ve watched professional communicators and communications trainers encourage this practice. And I hate it! It goes against so many things that MicroMedia stands for.

A lot of the time it isn’t going to make any difference – and as such, it won’t cause an effect (either one you want, or one you don’t). But using a corporate, impersonal message at a time when people are feeling high emotions can potentially throw fuel on the fire.

I watched with interest, and concern, communications that were released by the West Yorkshire Police following a fatal shooting on the M62 motorway in the UK on the evening of Monday 2nd January 2017.

Like many, I have a breaking news app running on my smartphone and was shocked to read: ‘Around 6pm this evening (Monday January 2), during a pre-planned policing operation near to the M62 in Huddersfield a police firearm was discharged and a man has died.(See the statement at the bottom of the document.)

What shocked me? Was it that there had been a shooting in the UK? Was it that someone had lost their life? Of course. But the communicator in me baulked at the statement:

a police firearm was discharged and a man has died.

This couldn’t be more corporate, it couldn’t be more impersonal and it couldn’t be more devoid of emotion.

For communications of this type to work, you have to assume that humans are logical beings with emotions…

But we’re not…!

We’re emotional beings that can find logic… if we want to!

We are highly complex beings capable of being highly logical. And we can reject that logic instantly. We’re capable of cognitive dissonance and compassion.

We only have to look at the ‘post-truth’ political era that we have entered to see that people would far sooner react emotionally than process facts.

You try to process the phrase ‘a police firearm was discharged and a man has died’ and there are emotional and logical disconnects. Examine the perfectly acceptable and understandable emotional and logical assumptions a reader would have, after reading that statement:

Someone’s been killed!
A police officer has shot someone dead!
Who was killed? (If you lived close to the M62, you might ask is you knew them.)

But the provided statement doesn’t match the reactions above – and I’m assuming that's on purpose. It has been ‘crafted’ to remove all emotion. But is that a good idea?

My major problem with this statement is the use of the phrase ‘a firearm was discharged’. Everyone can see that this is code. It’s code, trying to get away from the fact that there was a human being holding the ‘firearm’. It’s code trying to get away from the fact that a human being made the decision to pull the trigger. It a corporate mechanism to try and remove the human holding the gun. It can be argued that it’s trying to convey that the ‘firearm’ killed the man, not the person holding it.

It’s like the military using terms like ‘collateral damage’ in an attempt to remove the emotion from the fact that civilians have been killed, or ‘friendly fire’ to desensitise the fact that service-personnel have been killed by their own allies.

I read this statement and worried that the message had been overworked and tweeted about it. I was surprised that no one commented on my concerns – but in reflection, I shouldn’t have been. Communicators are currently trained to be corporate, impersonal and remove emotion – so why should they think that there was anything wrong with the message?

But I will argue that being impersonal and devoid of emotion backfired on the police. The message was effective in ‘informing’ people that something had happened. But the lack of emotion potentially fuelled something they didn’t expect…

Community resentment.

Quite rightly, the initial statement didn’t tell us anything about the person that had died – after all, it would be improper to do so until their next of kin was informed.

But very soon after the incident, it was revealed that the dead man was from an ethnic minority.

As soon as you have that fact, it’s all too easy to stereotype. But as communicators we have to have our audiences are the foremost of our thoughts. And this man’s community should have been one of the principle audiences.

Again, it’s all too easy for me to review this in retrospect – but if I had been asked to prepare a statement for this situation, my first question would have been ‘How trusted is my police force within this community?’. I would then have used this as a check-mark against any message I generated – let alone release.

How would I react to the statement if I were a member of this community?

Am I seriously being told that a gun killed this man, not a police officer?
A member of my community has died, but the police don’t have a single emotion about it…

Ironically, the lack of emotion in this statement could be seen to have evoked high, negative emotions in the community. Indeed there were protests against this shooting that caused traffic to come to a stop and damage to a police vehicle. The local MP took to Facebook to appeal for calm.

Can I 100% say that this initial statement caused this community resentment or civil unrest? Of course not.

But I will argue, that in this case, it did more harm than good.

So what should this constabulary learn from this and what could they have done better?

First, a quick review of constabulary’s Twitter channel shows that they have used the words ‘firearm’ and ‘discharge’ together so often, that it’s become a cliché – and it’s being pointed out to them by their own audience. They have to stop using this phrase immediately as it’s undermining audience trust.

If you look at what the force said at the inquest, the messaging was better. During the inquest it was stated that ‘During the incident an officer discharged a firearm in the execution of his duty with the shots going through the windscreen of the Audi.This still uses the words ‘firearm’ and ‘discharged’. But there’s a human present with ‘an officer’ and there was a ‘reason’ to use that weapon via ‘in the execution of his duty’.

Review all the statements released by this constabulary online and you’ll see they all lack so much.

If the communications had started with:

'A police officer was called upon to use their weapon during an planned operation on the M62 that resulted in the death of one male. More to follow...’

Would it have provided a better foundation on which to communicate with the desired audiences?

In my opinion, yes. That’s what I train at MicroMedia; realise there are emotions and acknowledge them; if humans are involved, be honest and say so.

And most of all, if you remove emotion and stay impersonal… Expect your audience to come after you. People speak to people, not faceless emotionless organisations.

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