Revolutionary Measures

Why good communication starts with listening

What do Theresa May and British Airways have in common? Obviously they’ve both recently been in the news, for the PM’s failed election gamble and the airline’s IT outage that ruined Bank Holiday flights for thousands of people.

Theresa May

But what really links them in my mind is their poor approach to communications, specifically failing to listen before trying to launch their message to their audiences. In the case of Theresa May she persisted with meaningless slogans such as “strong and stable government”, despite feedback from the public that it was sick to death of hearing it – and indeed was fed up of the election more generally. And when she did U-turn on areas such as the dementia tax she failed to acknowledge that she’d made a mistake. In their crisis, British Airways took too long to respond fully or demonstrate any empathy with its stranded passengers.

Neither of these are alone in their mistakes, and they all come from a fundamentally old-fashioned approach to communications. This is that whatever they say (or don’t say) people will listen and automatically believe them, giving them the benefit of the doubt and feeling that they are putting them first. While this may have worked in the past, it treats the public as fools, ignoring both their growing scepticism and the fact that they can easily share their views on channels such as social media.

The balance of power has shifted between companies/politicians and the public – it is becoming much more equal. This means that communicators need to do three things:

1.Test messages first
When you come up with a new idea, you need to see how it resonates with the people that will be on the receiving end. Don’t just sit in a bubble full of those that support you or your policies. Test it with your actual audiences – whether voters, passengers or the general public. Plan for everything that can go wrong. The idea of the Devil’s Advocate – someone who will cross-check and aim to pick holes in an argument is a good one. By listening you can find any gaps in your strategy and plug them before it is too late. I can’t believe that BA tested its crisis plan on any passengers before it had to use it for example or that May’s Dementia Tax was run past anyone outside a small inner circle before making it into the Tory manifesto.

2. Listen to feedback
People want a dialogue, not to be preached at. So you need to show you are open to listening to their views and engaging with them, even after a plan or policy has been officially launched. The era of one way communications is over – you have to listen to feedback and use it constructively if you want to build relationships.

3. Be honest
One of the biggest issues with the Tory U-turn on the dementia tax and even holding the election itself was not being honest about changing a position. No-one, particularly politicians, wants to admit that they are wrong, but there are times when it is the honest way forward, and demonstrates strength rather than weakness. Otherwise you find yourself in a much deeper hole later on – as the PM is discovering now.

We now live in a news cycle driven by social media, meaning anyone (from Donald Trump down), can question your communications, at any time. This means that PR people need to ensure that they have planned everything rigorously, show that they are listening, and be prepared to change in response to dialogue. Only then will they win and retain public trust for the long term.

Photo Policy Exchange via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

June 14, 2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. […] of the country. This is in stark contrast to current political turmoil where the Prime Minister seems too scared to engage, while her cabinet squabbles around her. The Queen even seemingly managed to get a cheeky shot in […]

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  2. […] of the interviewer’s questions. While you should have key messages you want to get across, listen to what you are being asked and respond genuinely, especially if it means putting your script to one side. Remember – people respond to people, […]

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