Public sector comms: how to not be evil

(Or, ‘How social media helped me get my heart back’)

I’m going to keep this quite short considering this is post about obedience, public sector managers, the nature of evil and social media.

I’m going to argue how findings of a few psychological studies suggest the modern communications person needs to be more in touch with ‘the people’ avoid being complicit in evil acts.

A little heart and rebelliousness, along with social media, can help us be leaders and avoid working on things we will ultimately be ashamed of.

If you haven’t time to read this now, I made a diagram summary:

Leader = low obedience and much giving a shit

(Oops, left the caps lock on!)

The banality of evil

This week I listened to my holiday podcast list and I heard to an interesting programme about Hannah Arendt’s study into a Nazi who was one of the major organisers of the holocaust. She found that Adolf Eichmann was not driven by antisemitism or psychological damage – he wanted to improve his career.

He followed orders and relied on Amtssprache – ‘officialese’ to make himself sound intelligent and the concepts and policies he helped to implement more bearable.

His motives for evil actions were pedestrian and everyday. He was “just doing his job”, and following processes.

I’m not suggesting the suffering and pain caused by Eichmann’s obedience to authority is as tragic in modern public service comms.

However, we can certainly learn how small and seemingly insignificant decisions we make to please our employers or our own run-of-the-mill short-term desires can result in awful outcomes. And we can check ourselves before we go too far.

Pleasing people not suits

Managers have the power to sack us or punish us maybe, but citizens are the people we work for.

We’re often asked to follow the order of somebody senior (who often doesn’t have a clue about communications):

Put this 400 page consultation PDF document on the website

Don’t edit me! Fashionable management speak and technical terms make me sound professional

Buy this software package as a rival organisation has it

Does pleasing this person make us go home feeling satisfied? Who do you want to obey?

  • The time-poor/dyslexic/partially sighted person or speaker of English as a second language who could contribute to a consultation but won’t read that long document that you didn’t bother to summarise or explain
  • The number of people who lose trust in your organisation because the jargon and buzzwords make you sound like you’re hiding something
  • The people who don’t want money wasted on online packages (bought by people who don’t get the web or user-experience) when better solutions are available for free.

Does it matter enough to challenge this manager? What would a citizen say if they saw it? Would you be proud to show them the task you’ve been given?

Can you be arsed to argue? Is it how you’d do it if you were in charge? Can you educate this person on making a better choice?

Do you love your work more than you love sucking up to the boss? Could being a kissarse increase your potential for evil?

Obedience to authority figures

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs… can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
Stanley Milgram

The podcast also mentions social psychology experiments, conducted by Stanley Milgram, which took place in the 1960s – three months after Eichmann started being tried in Jerusalem for his war crimes.

The studies measured how willing people were to perform acts that conflicted with their conscience.

Stanley Milgram Experiment advertising (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Participants believed they were asked to deliver ‘electric shocks’ to another person if they answered a question incorrectly. This would teach them to remember words as part of a given task.

They were not actually real shocks however, and the people being shocked were actors. In the staged scenario, people were asked to increase the intensity of the shocks by 15 volts until they would be administering a probably fatal shock to the other ‘participant’.

(A great summary of the experiments and more details explanation is here on Wikipedia).

In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65% of experiment participants administered the final massive 450 volt shock.

A fascinating finding discussed in the podcast was about how awareness of the feelings of the people being ‘shocked’ made a difference to results.

When participants heard the voices and screams of the people they thought they were shocking – that is, when they identified with the other participant – nobody got as far as administering the death shocks.

Those people who didn’t hear the noises of those they were shocking and saw only the guy in the white coat telling them to give shocks – they identified with the experimenter. All of these people were compliant with orders to give the death shocks.

I see this as an important reminder and analogy for those of use who work in public service:

  • the white coated figure represents authority comparable with the besuited managers we see in the public sector.
  • the fellow participant, the person being given ‘a lesson’ with shocks, are citizens.

Social media listening to relate

Social media can give employees a chance to listen to what communities are saying and feel closer to them, often without having to leave the office.

Using social media as channel for your organisation to just broadcast news is a big mistake.

Hearing the people that we really work for can deepen the ways that we relate to the people we serve.

We can identify with ‘the people’, not just the corporate order givers.

Social media can help you and me bring our hearts to work. Get on your corporate home feeds for a few minutes a day and begin to know your people!

It’s not easy but it’s something to aspire to

As public servants we all agree that our work is ultimately to make life and people our organisations serve happier, healthier and wealthier (not just economically). That job is easier when you have a sense of the people you work for.

We may well have all had moments we’re not proud of. It’s impossible in ever reduced teams and budgets to do everything that seems right. But we can’t let the decisions we make every day build until we’ve created outcomes that we are ashamed of.

We cannot leave our hearts at home before we leave for the office. We can’t afford to, or our jobs will become increasingly perceived as being useless.

What I’ve learned is: your work becomes more brilliant the more you give a shit (see diagram).

If you’re still with me, I’ll end with a story.

My excellent reports were useless

Once upon a time (ages ago), as a council press officer, I spent huge chunks of my months producing media monitoring reports based on AVE calculations and some other analysis. I’d make them clear and punchy and on time. My bosses were pleased and I learned a little about what now I’d call ‘trending topics’ for my company. It was expected of me.

But it dawned on me – who’s actually reading them? Answer: just me. Nobody really cared about the content, just that I was doing them. I was hitting my targets brilliantly but the target I hit was useless.

I stopped doing them. A few people that noticed thought I should continue, but after a few weeks they found something else to moan about. Nobody fired me.

(I should add, measurement and media monitoring can be insightful but it just wasn’t a priority or a help for our tiny comms team in a small organisation. On the other hand, some of those reports are massaged figures designed to make the comms team look good.)

I had time to generate better media coverage, circulating better information about the place I worked for and I had more time to experiment in what was then the new social media world (MySpace anyone?!). I could do a quick update for anyone who wanted it off the top off my head because I was living it and enjoying my work every day. This was the start of my career where I got closer contact with the people who use the public services that I was paid to promote.

I found my professional heart. I started to argue for what I thought were the most efficient, fun, and useful ways to do things. I gave less attention to the desires of colleagues and more for citizens that I could think of, that I was growing to know – the kind of people who were taking the time to share information with me about their lives as I started to build networks on a corporate Twitter feed.

I was thinking of the outcome of my decisions, not in the office I worked in, but ‘out there’. I was demonstrating leadership, arguing for real people, knowing people who were taking their exams that day, who were looking for help with their elderly relatives, who were sharing their gorgeous photos of their neighbourhood.

I’d get pissed off as it doesn’t make for a quiet life but suddenly I was less embarrassed about my namby pamby, girl-who-writies-spiel, PR and soshul meeja job. I was loving it, fighting for what’s right on a pocket-sized scale.

And I was happier because I was not detached from the job. I was aiming for targets that had more impact on people’s lives.

All this from feeling closer to the many people the organisation works for.

Imagine if we could all help each other find ways to feel that way? What impact would it have on the way our public services run?

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10 thoughts on “Public sector comms: how to not be evil

  1. This resonates so much with me, Helen.

    I spent a large part of my career arguing that certain institutions were operating on false and damaging principles. I got no thanks for that from the people who had built their well-paid careers on managing the organisations which administered the damaging outcomes. Eventually their system spat me out and carried on doing things the wrong way.

  2. Brilliant stuff. Public services are nothing without the public. Well worth checking ourselves whenever possible. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting there. It’s cool that WAO are doing videos with their reports now, the website’s much clearer. But as 25% of the working-age population in Wales lack basic literacy skills, there’s a lot more to do to make stuff accessible. Can’t rest on our laurels.

    Keep up the good work!

    – Dyfrig

  3. This resonates so strongly with me, Helen. How I battled against those managers in my miserable 11-year local government PR/communication career… towards the end I felt I’d become a certain senior manager’s very own Max Clifford. She certainly seemed more interested in promoting herself than listening to local people. I particularly hated those calls from local reporters asking why a service had been axed, etc. because it always seemed to me that the wrong things were axed… would we really have noticed if a few of those senior managers had disappeared? And while I battled (and did myself no favours in the long-term), I watched those ‘pleasers’ and process-obsessed officers getting all the praise and promotions. Oh dear… it’s been three years now so probably best forgotten. A brilliant article as always.

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