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Sun 3 Feb 2008 12:00 AM

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It's good to communicate

Communication is the key to breaking down fear of the new and getting business done, explains Alexander McNabb.

It is axiomatic that public relations is about the process of driving change. This is why I find it odd when I hear communications professionals refusing to embrace the concept that nothing is a ‘given’; that the situation or attitude that you faced last time you tried something might be open to a new approach.

In fact, conservatism, the enemy of all change, rears its ugly head constantly when we’re faced with having to break habits and do things or look at things in new ways. Our instinctive reaction to being asked to change is to object to it. Strange, in a world changing at a pace faster than it ever has, that we retain the ability to resist change, but there you have it.

Managing change is, sadly, about process. Like the psychoanalysts changing a light bulb (it takes three, but the bulb has got to want to change), people change because they have accepted the benefit of change to them. That’s as true of implementing a new computer system that forces new working practices on a group of people as it is of getting people to use a new toothbrush or shop in a different mall. Because we’re all reactionary and stupid, we won’t change until someone has given us reason to do so – and done so in a way that doesn’t threaten us, what’s more.

Building awareness of a new thing is therefore not enough, we need to build acceptance of that thing as a second stage in the process of promoting change. And you can’t do that without having first built understanding of the agent of change. We’re threatened by things we don’t understand and react fearfully to them. So we have to promote understanding, often best achieved through a process of dialogue if we are to avoid rejection through fear.

Take the example of the group of people being asked to work with a new computer system. All too frequently, the first people know about the new system is when they come into work in the morning to find a gleaming new screen on their desks with a totally new piece of software snarling at them. Cue innumerable complaints, cries of ‘I can’t do this’ and calls for the old system to be brought back. And let’s not forget the massive drop in productivity which is the result of employees using non-verbal communication to tell us that the old way was better. If anybody had bothered talking to them about the old system, finding out what they thought was wrong with it and asking for their ideas and suggestions regarding the new system, the reaction to the introduction of a new thing in their lives could well have been very different.

And so the mind of someone being asked to embrace any given change would ideally have stepped through three steps: I am aware of this thing; I understand the relationship of this thing to me and what is required of me; I accept the benefit of this thing.

Awareness, understanding and acceptance therefore underpin communications campaigns that set out to promote change within the target audience, a definition which I would argue should encompass all of our work. And, incidentally, that’s a process that requires two-way communication, not just pushing information out.

By planning the phased introduction of new concepts around the person we are talking to, we can introduce change as a reasoned process rather than as a discontinuity or challenge. This requires a certain degree of empathy with the target audience, achieved, at its most basic, by talking to people, and requires ‘customer-centric’ thinking (and, by the way, anyone that tells you they’re being ‘customer-centric’ probably isn’t. It’s an approach to your work, not a claim to be made) to even have a chance of getting off the ground.

It also requires a planned communicative process to be implemented rather than addressing the target market by sending out a stream of press releases and a torrent of declamatory announcements. But, by golly, it’s an approach that works more effectively than just shouting acronyms in people’s faces or plastering the streets with exhortations to dare to dream or some other such pish.

Alexander McNabb is the group account director at Spot On Public Relations.

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