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Building trust takes more than sound bites

28th January 2021 By Ben Lowndes
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I’ve thought fitfully about relationships and how they shape our views during this grinding start to the year.

They keep families, teams, political organisations and communities of interest together. They’re imperfect, occasionaly fractious and sometimes maddening. But we would not be ourselves without them.

Connections and shared experiences that make life worth living have festered on the backburner since March last year. No amount of Zoom catch ups can fill the void this creates in our lives.

This is the context to my becoming more anxious with feelings that, for all the benefits that technology brings, people aren’t connecting with others who hold different views to theirs.

Noise infects public discourse and intimidates some who would otherwise engage. ‘Conversation’, or what passes for it, becomes a binary online shouting match without end. We’ve seen it with Brexit, and with the COVID-19 response. Misinformation, while always with us, has spread online to an extent that tests public bodies and risks lives.

From respect to hostility

This has been on my mind for ages. Then a letter from former US President George HW Bush to his White House successor Bill Clinton in 1993 landed in my Twitter timeline. Take a look below.

“I am rooting hard for you.” Respectful and gracious in defeat, the letter feels lightyears from the abrasive tone adopted by Donald Trump and used in so much of today’s public discourse.

Closer to home, Matthew Syed wrote in The Sunday Times (£) about how our tendency to share headlines without bothering to grasp an argument’s wider context is debasing public debate. He cites Piers Morgan’s recent interview with retired judge Lord Sumption, where a complex argument clumsily delivered became a soundbite that went viral. Wider understanding of the issues under discussion is the casualty as everyone rushes to take sides.

Needless to say, Morgan responded robustly and in a way that proved Syed’s original assertion.

Syed will surely have known that was coming. I hope Morgan took two minutes to read under the headline before firing off two angry tweets in response.

Damaging trust with spin

I struggle to articulate a view in this post about exactly what connects these events in my mind, other than an unease that the desire to hold the line and not back down is a barrier to understanding others. We’re always on and connected, yet disconnected from the change happening in front of our eyes.

Soundbites have always been around. It’s right to want to convey complex information in ways that people understand. But this isn’t the same as spinning the data or misrepresenting an issue for a headline. Those areas of (mis)practice fuel divisions and misunderstandings that bring us to where we are today.

If the last year demonstrated anything, it’s shown how important trust is. In that context, Edelman’s Trust Barometer is a depressing (if unsurprising) read. Trust appears to have taken a hit across the board, amidst talk of ‘information bankruptcy’. Others write about this well. I share it here merely to underline my point about the state that we find ourselves in.

Context matters, as does being straight with people that some things are complicated. Relationships are founded on these things.

Campaigning for local areas

Soon, we may embark on local elections as the country (hopefully) emerges from lockdown. Campaigns may be hampered by a lack of time to knock on doors, but the social media battle hits its stride soon.

Bristol’s online debates will contain plenty of unpleasant comments, often posted from nameless accounts. I know of people in Bristol who no longer engage in conversations online out of concern about the hassle they may get. That they feel shut out of conversations about where they live and work sits uneasily with Bristol’s image as an open, tolerant city. If we’re not careful, we’ll be left with an echo chamber, devoid of the diversity of thought which is essential to building respect and trust.

I’ll come back to this topic in a future post and hope that candidates and campaign teams resist the urge to go into online combat. Research suggests there are limits to mobilising online supporters that excludes other more representative voices on either side of the debate from the conversation. This needs to change if we’re to step back from where we are.

Building trust in communities

This matters hugely to me in the work we do every day. It matters in our conversations with communities about developments proposed in their areas. Some will be concerned, and others may not want to see change happen. We approach those concerns respectfully as part of a wider conversation. This is not an exercise in persuasion or spin as much as it is an effort to build understanding and trust. We will never get there by slagging each other off online.

We may get somewhere over time by actively listening to different views and being prepared to respond meaningfully to them. It will surely also help to check the veracity of what we’re reading before adding to the flow of online outrage.

Is this too much to hope for? A couple of comments under my post on the brilliant Facebook community of practice for comms people suggested it may be. But building trust starts here for me. If you accept that it’s worth taking time to check an issue before spouting off about it, surely it’s the only choice to make.

With trust comes legitimacy. Good comms people strive for this outcome.

They also know that we won’t get there with soundbites alone.


This post first appeared on Ben Lowndes’ personal blog.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash