There is a great deal of noise in the public domain but very little in the form of clear and consistent communication. Tired of inflated claims and varnished truths, audiences are pushing back. In this environment, it’s more important than ever before for a public entity to find its steady voice and get in touch with its credible side.
A communication deficit in times when so much is being said – through myriad communication channels and at soaring decibels – is a strange paradox. As the theatrics of everyday life unfold around us, we struggle to process the onslaught of information, evaluate the data thrown at us by battling entities, judge the integrity of carriers of that information, and create our own opinions based on all of the above.
The world is indeed a stage with everyone (well, almost everyone) craving the limelight and a few fleeting moments of fame. So what if the scripts are marked by dissonance and cacophony and the protagonists are jingoistic megalomaniacs who are trying too hard to connect with their audiences.
For those on the receiving end, it’s a challenge to separate truth from fiction, or honesty from hype. How do we know whom to trust or believe? Do we suspend judgement and go with the most entertaining or loudest voice? Or do we process information based on fact, history and context?
The problem today is not that we don’t communicate enough but that we have lost sight of what it means to communicate effectively – in a way that fosters clarity rather than breeds speculation and more ambiguity. In a rapidly changing socio-economic environment marked by growth, reforms and sweeping changes in lifestyle, good communication is a responsibility – for strategists, policymakers, corporations and the media.
This involves getting back to basics, and that can still be done today, even as media evolves digitally and every person at a keyboard wields power.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: “Those who look for bad in people (or situations) will surely find it.” In the current climate of cynicism, it is unfashionable and a tad naïve to ‘believe’ or ‘trust’, even if one wants to. Objectivity is forsaken for speculation, because everyone is both less trusting and less trustworthy.
In such an environment, the messenger, the message and the method play a big role in delivering a much needed coherence. There is no one-way street here, no placid acceptance of what one hears. What is required is for the messenger to “stick to message”and communicate for clarity rather than communicate to confuse.
It rankles then, when senior statesmen or others we hold in regard make sweeping statements; or when corporations shy away from providing timely or any information; or when the media encourage shamelessly partisan debates that can’t see the wood for the trees.
Perhaps,if they were to stop and consider the following basic questions, it will help in re-establishing credibility: who will receive this information and in what context; what will its impact be; can we vouch for the integrity of the information; can we pre-empt questions that arise after its dissemination; can we make a real attempt to address these questions honestly and to the best of our abilities.
Information finds ways to break free and can’t be withheld for long from stakeholders. It isn’t strange anymore to see news of infrastructure development, government projects or corporate expansion being broken prematurely by real estate agents. Corporations are caught unawares when the media gain access to documents through well-placed ‘sources’. Employees can share internal information on management changes and other developments with the click of a button.
The charges of inaction levelled against the UPA government, the collapse of King?isher Airlines, the panicked exodus from Bangalore of people from the Northeast, the recent exposés by India Against Corruption and the general public reaction to them – all these examples serve to illustrate an important point. That the inability to speak up clearly, or to speak up at all – about the crucial “whys”, about goals and contingency plans, about bene?its and challenges – can cause a breakdown in con?idence and lead to intense speculation.
Let’s face it – many of us are still happy to talk and be in the news when times are good, but are quick to pull the shutters down when the going gets tough. It takes courage, belief and a sense of accountability to be able to maintain open channels of communication at all times.
The recent debates on privacy have drawn mixed reactions and with good reason. When representatives of a fraternity that has largely been shielded from any form of accountability lobby for privacy, it is bound to raise eyebrows. Transparency in public life – for corporations and for individuals such as sportspeople and artists who are institutions in themselves – is both an obligation and an expectation. The increasing clamour for transparency will alleviate the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome that has emerged in our society in gargantuan proportions.
At the same time, we must be cognisant of the fine line between transparency and privacy. Without the right checks and balances, these cleansing efforts will overstep boundaries resulting in more acrimony and negativity.
We are now engaged in a blind race with no clear winner or finish line in sight. Straightforward communication, based on facts rather than self-serving interests, is the need of the hour. Credible communication must avoid the trap of instant grati?ication if it has to diffuse the currents of distrust swirling around us.