Pretend chuminess from the public sector is starting to grate with one comms person. Shall we not?
by Louise Powney
Public sector comms... stop trying to be my friend.
I’m a tax payer, I PAYE. A considerable chunk of my salary is taken away from me and the public sector spends it on whatever it likes, often on services that I don’t use. I don’t have a choice in this, it just happens. Broadly, I don’t have a problem with it either (except when I read stories like this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-43576044 ), so there’s no need to butter me up and pretend that the things you spend my cash on belong to me.
What am I talking about? There is a faux matiness that has been making its oleaginous way out of the mouths of people in public life for quite a while now and it is going to cause me to do some serious harm to something or someone. It’s like a person you don’t know flinging their arm around you in a pub and beerily belching in your face. I’ve started calling this the Bitching Our™, and I am calling time on it.
This all started with David Cameron. A man who became completely incapable of saying “country” without shoving the first person plural possessive pronoun in front of it. It got to the point where I wondered if he thought it was actually one word: ourcountry. Ourcountry: a place that only came into being when the First Lord of the Treasury was installed on a podium or behind a lectern. A bit like Brigadoon only with Cameron’s forehead and without Cyd Charisse’s legs (Google it, young people).
If you’re referring to the UK, I know it’s our country, you’re the prime minister of it and I’ve got the passport and NI number to prove it. Stop ramming it down my throat. You’re not making me feel more fondly towards what you’re saying in fact I’ve stopped paying attention as your waffle has been drowned out by the howling in my head.
Peak Bitching Our™ was reached – surprise! – during the EU referendum campaign. Who will ever forget the toothless rallying cry: “Take our country back!” To where? I found myself thinking throughout those endless vituperative months. Imagine Boris, Nigel et al returning Ourcountry Plc to M&S. A shop assistant of a certain age with a face like a bulldog sucking a wasp, sniffing Ourcountry’s armpits as if it had been bought on a Friday lunchtime, worn out disco dancing on Saturday night, hung out of the window on Sunday, and taken back for a refund on Monday. I hope they’ve got the receipt and haven’t cut the labels off, I’d think to myself.
And then there was the confounded bus. As it trundled into view it, a new horror was writ large: “We send the EU £350million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead – Vote Leave”. From thereon in, all attempts to have a sensible conversation were DOA and introduced us to the peculiarly British equivalent of Godwin’s Law https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law : OurNHS.
Godwin’s Law is the phenomenon where the longer an argument continues the more likely Hitler and his jackbooted pals are to be evoked in a bid to put an end to it. You can’t travel beyond this point, you’ve ended up in a cul de sac, because nothing is worse than being compared to the Nazis. (Or that used to be the case. Being accused of reading the Daily Mail seems to have replaced it.)
Similar impoverished and reductive thinking applies when OurNHS is evoked: it’s our NHS, it belongs to us, so no-one can say anything bad about it because that would be like saying you hated your left leg. Or your mum.
And now “our this”, and “our that” are oozing their way from anything and everything. The Bitching Our™ is spreading like an oil slick across an ocean but everyone is diving into it rather than furiously squirting Fairy Liquid on to all the seabirds. Everyone is at it. Left and right, red, blue, yellow or green, leavers or remainers, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. And now the communicators have clambered aboard this lumbering bandwagon that has been so manfully steered up to this point by the talking heads.
But why is this making me so angry? Because this nonsense is taking me for a fool. It is all the things that I cannot stand in communications. It is lazy, high-handed, and it is coercive.
The overriding crime in all this is that it presumes to tell me how I feel about something. It’s “my” NHS therefore I must have some kind of protective emotional attachment to it. Oh, really? I think I’ll be the judge of that, thank you.
This doesn’t bother me in advertising. You’re trying to sell me something, you’ve bought that space, knock yourselves out and I’ll just ignore it. But this manipulative arm twisting in public sector comms is as cheap as it is worthless.
The public sector must talk to people, after all it’s spending their money. Tell me about changes, by all means ask me what I think (and I might even be bothered to tell you), even try and change my behaviour. But do not ever think that you can take a shortcut straight to my heart; you only stand a chance of getting there if you’ve already gone via my head.
Louise Powney www.twitter.com/louisejpowney is a local government communications officer in the north west and a former newspaper reporter.
Picture credit: Musee McCord Flickr