Engaging with the public: What do the public think of us and how can we speak in ways that understand each other?
by Deborah Mattinson
Deborah Mattinson, Founding Director of Britain Thinks, picked up the theme of public engagement. The first key requirement for effective public engagement is the framing of the argument. She stressed the need for good case studies, clear messages with planned rebuttals, careful use of language and imagery, and effective spokespeople.
Context is crucial; people do not receive messages in isolation and campaigners must consider both competing influences and the values and experiences of those they are targeting. The public is bombarded with messaging and filters out much of the noise. For example, a single week ahead of the 2015 General Election in which a host of political events occurred was largely remembered by voters as the week a couple from Scunthorpe won the lottery twice. Cutting through this noise is difficult for campaigners but it is important to start from where people are rather than where you want them to be.
Several speakers highlighted that myth-busting does not work and nor does the so-called ‘killer fact.’ The public simply filters out messages that contradict their beliefs. The challenge is to find commonly held values or beliefs and start the conversation from there.
Careful use of words is crucial. For example, the recommendation that excluded pupils ‘should be given’ a place at another school elicits a much less sympathetic response than stating that pupils ‘should not be denied’ a school place; denial of opportunity sits badly with most people. Deborah also recommended the use of self-reflection to engender empathy. For example, asking what would happen if you lost your job, your marriage broke up, you were evicted or lost your house?
Next presentation – Abigail Scott Paul, Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Understanding and developing new language around poverty