The medium and the message

 As we get excited about the potential of social networking and the social media for local government how do we ensure the message is not lost in the preoccupation with the medium?

A recent example would be the US presidential debate on TV aired live in the US and covered worldwide. The TV, the medium for carrying this debate encourages the viewer to look at body language, tone of voice and appearance rather than what the candidates are saying, the message. We are looking to see which candidate comes off best, who gets rattled, who looks hot and bothered, who sweats the most, who has a winning smile who has an unattractive smirk. People talk about who won but judged not by the most persuasive argument but by who handle the stress better, who had the best put downs and who looks cool under pressure.

Another example would be the PM’s recent sound bit on energy bills. The PM successfully grabbed the media’s attention by announcing that the government would change the law to force energy suppliers to give customers their best deal. The speed with which this was communicated caught the government by surprise and they were unable for several days to provide the detail of how this policy would work in practice. The result was it looked like an ill thought out idea which the PM and come up with to grab some positive headlines in a bad week. This highlights the danger of having the means to get the message out fast to everyone before you are clear about what the message is.

It may be fast but is it appropriate? Texting employees their redundancy notice ensured all got the message at the same time and from management not the local media but made management seem hardhearted and insensitive.

In large geographically dispersed workforce it is all too easy to be preoccupied with ensuring every one receives the message after all typical feedback from front line staff is that “no one tells us what’s going on” or “why do we have to learn about this from the local news paper”.

As a senior manager who had responsibility not only for the information technology, the medium, but also communications I am painfully aware that the need to get something out there often meant that the message that was transmitted did not reassure staff or answer their questions. Tell everyone there is going to be a major cost saving restructuring and the first question they will ask is how will it affect me quickly followed by will I still have a job and when will I know?  If this level of detail is not yet available staff will think this is yet another back of the envelope idea that has not been thought through and confirms senior management doesn’t know what its doing.

Much to the irritation of some senior managers the communication staff I worked with responded to a request to get information out to staff by saying which staff and what info. The point being that the different audiences would require a tailored message. It was the same with the Director’s monthly blog how to write something that is relevant and of interest to staff when services range from social work to libraries and from care homes to museums!

It may seem obvious but however smart your communication technologies, however accessible, however interactive you still have to have something to say. The communications staff can help put it in plain English, give it a catch title and make it short and punchy but they can’t come up with the message.

In my experience senior managers are not always clear what the message is that they want everyone to receive. This was dramatically illustrated in a senior management team meeting following approval of the business plan.” Right we need to get a message out to all our staff”. Forty minutes later we still had not agreed what that message was!

Blair McPherson author of UnLearning management published by Russell House   


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simon fenton-jones 6 Years Ago
Happy New Year Blair, That was an interesting one to be writing just before the New Year began. I haven't read your book - Unlearning management. But I'd imagine its main message is the conclusion i came to years ago; our public institutions confuse governance with management. Now each is run with a ruthless efficiency which, if things continue the way they are, should leave us with management teams who do nothing but commission/outsource services. The democratic side of things will continue to be simply for show. Nice thing about the non-MainStream Media (non-MSM) these days is that it's not hard to find an illustration. Perhaps the most interesting thing for people like ourselves, who have watched the MSM being dumbed-down to a Murdoch view of its purpose - content is there to separate the ads - is that it does get the braincells working on how to develop a more relevant approach to how the interactive/inclusive channels/platforms can be developed. But boy, it is having a hard birth isn't it? Khub's genesis, and search for sustainability, being a lovely illustration. You might like this one. I'm trying to put together a curricula for Open Policy Makers (OPMers) and you can see I've been giving Mike Norton a rev, which will explain a few things (Sorry, haven't figured out how one points to a conversation on this platform yet.) But I do see that this doco is a must see for anyone who is trying to fill the space between making policy, in a silo, and gathering a community who are interested in a subject. If you've got any other suggestions, i'd appreciate them. I suppose, in all of this convergence between Broadcast, and Interactive, Mediums, is how our institutions respond to being inclusive. One doesn't have to inform, so long as people are included in why? a decision is made. So we know OPMing is about putting the C before the I, in ICT. And we've seen lots of councils/governments broadcast meetings. But no mini-Murdoch has yet to get real about getting the balance between pumping out a message and gathering its response (although the guardian does a reasonable job). Of course that because the channel builders have yet to figure out how to include their audience is the design of their platform/medium. Catch 22 eh? An interesting year to you (and I don't mean that as a Chinese curse :)