Communicating in a politically charged environment

Posted by: on Sep 18, 2017 | No Comments

Many organisations have to deal with the reality of communicating in a politically charged environment day in, day out. But what does that mean for their communications and what steps should they take?In the first place, it is important to consider what a politically charged environment really is. It is more than dealing with a controversial matter but instead has the direct involvement of politicians, either through scrutiny or direct decision-making. In other words, there are potential electoral implications.

Some organisations are more naturally under the spotlight of politicians but that political element can also apply to a policy area, an issue or individuals. It can, therefore, be on-going or simply a one-off event.

If the environment is politically charged then there are likely to be active and motivated opponents, including political ones, strong opinions on all sides as well as heightened interest at key times, particularly around political set-pieces such as elections. It is also the case that ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from the issue can be easily identified.

Complete with this understanding it is possible to start considering the implications for those involved and these are not just about the communications.

There will be a heightened interest from a range of stakeholders including the media and the organisation could find itself the subject of consistent challenge and direct attacks, including online. But it would be wrong to think just in terms of communications. The attacks could take a range of forms including old-style sit-ins or protests alongside more high-tech hacks.

So the response may not just sit with communications but with IT, lawyers and a range of other groups within the organisations that you may not usually work with. But do!

The nature of communicating in such a situation means that it is a priority to understand its strengths of weaknesses but specifically as they are perceived by others. As the implications are considered the potential need for change or mitigation can then be worked through. In turn, this will assist in the management of audiences.

Opponents will often be active, and supporters quieter. The job has to be to minimise the chances of increased controversy and vocal opposition so that the political element is reduced.

It is always worth pausing to consider the pressures that politicians find themselves under. It is too easy to think negatively of politicians, their motives and their proclivity to avoid decisions or change their minds. But it has to be remembered that they were elected on a platform that then needs to be delivered. They have to be able to stand up at the next election and demonstrate that what was promised has been delivered. They have to show achievements.

They are also under pressure to react quickly and may even have to change their minds as the electorate shifts. That means communicators have to be able to able to move quickly as well, show flexibility and have a thick skin!

There is a natural tension between officers / civil servants and politicians. Both have different roles to do and can view communications differently. It can be easy for things to become difficult when politicians see the objectivity of officials as ‘taking sides’. So there always need to be efforts made to ‘practice’ working together to help build relationships and critically trust ahead of potentially sensitive times. Efforts should also be made to seek their advice and input early on.

In a politically charged environment the decision-making process can be particularly important – from the availability of information through to the level of transparency involved.

Stakeholder involvement and user involvement might need to be included alongside formal and informal consultations, focus groups, roundtables and a range of other methods of engagement. You may also face a number of statutory requirements from community consultations through to the need to deliver Sustainability and Transformation Plans. Each sector has its own requirements.

And its not that the public can’t gain access to information in any case. They can use of Freedom of Information requests, Subject Access Requests or may simply try to go to the courts!

If the work with stakeholders is effective then this can minimise opposition but you may find people willing to become advocates, help sell or defend the policy.

The other factor of the political decision-making process is to ensure that you think about it in your project and communications plan. Too often the political decision-making process is relegated and without the necessary papers to committees or formal approvals then the project will fail or the politically charged environment heightened.

You cannot always avoid the politics but the communications can help deal with them and support your objectives.

This blog is a shorter version of the talk Stuart gave to the Public Sector Communications Conference, Thursday 14 September 2017 with help and support from Deborah Smith, Promodo.

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