GET YOUR COMMS HEAD ON
☀ Sagar Shah and Jemima Yong
I am the mouth of this body.
My job is to say what the forehead tells me to say.
I say what it tells me because it’s higher up than me, and it’s my job to.
I get to feed all the little mouths I have back home because I say what the forehead tells me to say.
I am the mouth of this body and I can do more than speak.
I can bite, I can chew, I can smile and frown;
roll my tongue around, I can drink, I can eat. I can eat!
Without me it would be impossible.
On a good day, my expressions feel empowering and necessary.
No one would know what the forehead was thinking if I didn’t have the words to say it!
Lately, my expressions have felt empty and compromised.
I’m mouthing words that are not mine.
Is this all I am good for?
I don’t want to get my “comms head” on anymore.
The root of the problem is bigotry, not bad communication.
It’s a lack of empathy and imagination, not the inaccuracy of the language used.
Check any industry body, any PR charter, any statement of working principles following some grand PR conference and you can bet right at the top will be honesty, transparency, dialogue.
Yet too often in the midst of a comms crisis, when an organisation is confronted by it’s own inadequacies and the public are calling them out – these principles become less principled.
The ‘spokesperson’ is imagined.
An amorphous mouthpiece.
But the words are written by real people, with billions of lived experiences, who have insider knowledge, who are themselves affected by the inadequacies of their corporate masters, who are feeling pain and are trying, t t t r r r y y y i i i n n n g g g to hold on to their own principles.
Where is the border between one’s conscience and one’s duties, when charged with reputation management?
An art institution is racist. It doesn’t have fascist paintings on its walls or openly discriminatory policies. It may have been founded by someone with impeccably PC credentials and present work by diverse, perhaps radical individuals. But institutional racism permeates its culture and it’s felt, it is felt by the people working there. One day this is un-ignorably exposed to the world.
The dilemma felt by anyone working for a racist institution is perhaps most keenly felt by the comms team when the spotlight is shined upon its immorality. We may not be the face of the organisation, but we feed it its words. We don’t write the policies but we have to somehow make them palatable.
We are not an agency that can drop a client and move on. We can’t simply withdraw our labour and still pay the rent. We’re not Directors who can make an abrupt and yet ‘long-planned’ departure with a plum position waiting for us elsewhere.
We need to somehow navigate the moral morass we find ourselves in. Draft excuse after excuse for inaction, frame institutional machinations as positive actions and still live with ourselves.
Is this possible? What would a comms function where this is possible look like? How would we need to be empowered? What mechanisms must we forge?
In the best of times we mould. We absorb the world and pour back to our colleagues. We lift up and make change. In the best of times we can probe and question – why are we saying this? Do we have the right to say this? Can we help someone else say this better? But in the worst of times…
The institutional response
What is your personal response?
What is the response of your bosses?
Are these two responses alike?
What are the truths of the situation?
How do you communicate them?
Keeping up appearances
Why does the institution want to look good?
Why does the institution want to be right?
Who are you protecting?
What are you protecting?
Is it true?
Who is it true to?
Who is the institution?
Who are you speaking to?
Who are you speaking for?
Where are you speaking from?
What assumptions are you making?
What is transparency?
Why can’t you speak for yourself?
What do you express when you can’t express yourself?
How are you deciding what information to share and what information to keep?
What is being protected by this confidentiality?
Are you being paid to give up your agency and morality?
What are you responsible for when this goes to shit?
Do you believe in what you are saying?
Does it matter?
Why are you hiding?
What are the barriers preventing you from feeling empowered?
What kind of behaviour are you enabling by doing this?
Do you have a choice?
Do you want to be capable of change?