Wishful thinking in communications: three myths

May 11, 2018

I’ve heard the following lines in numerous guises over the years.

“We need to avoid the slippery slope”

If opponents are trying to eliminate or seriously hinder your license to operate, they usually try to chip away at it, one step at a time. Think alcohol: opponents may want to ban it, but stepping stones towards a ban include marketing bans and the like. Organisations get this, and term it a “slippery slope”. Their approach is thus to forcefully oppose every step of the “slippery slope”. Which probably seems like the only sensible thing to do. But the truth is, once you’re on a slope, there is no way back UNLESS you reduce the number of people who oppose your right to exist. Fewer foes, more friends. And belligerence aimed at stalling every instalment of a slippery slope will mean more foes and fewer friends, and no return from the slippery slope in the long-run.

“We just need to get our message out”

This might sometimes be the case. But it over-simplifies the environment in which we operate. If you get your message out… Criticism will cease? People will like your more than the competition? People will think you’re truly innovative or sustainable and should get favourable treatment? Investors will come flooding? Perhaps, but unlikely. Focusing purely on message dissemination avoids more pertinent things that need to be thought through first. Why have you not got your way? Why are others more popular? What do they do differently? What do people really think? Who are your friends and foes? Is this really a communications issue or is it systemic? It also diminishes what might be achieved through communications. “Get the message out” implies that people simply need to be made aware. But communications can go deeper than that: it can drive action and advocacy which are far more powerful than a mere message.

“We need to change the narrative”

When the public/media narrative is against you, it makes sense to want to change it. But this implies that it is possible to “change a narrative” through communications. It isn’t, usually. An oft-heard story in Brussels involves a lobbyist for a sugary drinks manufacturer insisting that their industry should seek to shift the narrative from the danger of sugar to the danger of dehydration. Good luck with that. “Changing the narrative” through communications is a fallacy: it implies attention spans are so short, or that people care so little, that they will simply shift between viewpoints having seen a marketing-communications campaign. If the narrative has been determined, trying to shift it without changing behaviour is nigh on impossible. Moreover, attempting it smacks of dishonesty, or avoiding responsibility. Best to address narrative X head-on, however challenging. Only then might the narrative begin to shift, slowly.

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