Building trust in an era of insecurity and spy balloons

Earlier this month, the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon. Since then three more high altitude objects have been shot down by the US government.

Despite parts of the first balloon being recovered from the Atlantic Ocean this week it’s unlikely this will reveal why there were there, but the incident will be added to an ever-growing list of reasons to feel insecure in 2023.

The sudden disappearance of Nicola Bulley on 27th January in St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire has dominated news headlines for weeks. How could a woman vanish into thin air? What are the police doing? Why haven’t they checked the abandoned house? Why did it take weeks to search the water? What evidence do they have to corroborate their theory that Nicola fell into the water?

The public – dissatisfied with the police investigation, have turned into sleuths, taking matters into their own hands to get to the bottom of the case. Whoever you are and wherever you live, it’s likely you’ve heard these questions or seen Nicola’s name trending on Twitter as thousands of people wade into the online debate, offering their hypothesis. Faith and trust in the local police team to solve the mystery has like Nicola, disappeared.

So in an age of distrust, threat of nuclear war and natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, how do we position local government communications in a way that resonates with our audiences and builds trust in a time of insecurity?

The role of PR as a strategic function has never been more obvious but managing expectations and keeping up with demand requires a resilient, adaptable and highly emotionally intelligent team.

Recently we were fortunate enough to have the highly esteemed, Professor Paul Willis, author, University lecturer and of the UK’s leading academics in the field of strategic communication join us for a team away day.

During the session Paul asked to come up with an analogy to best describe Public Relations.

Split into groups, each team came up with something different. One of the teams likened the PR team to a pit stop crew – working quickly, behind the scenes to keep the car moving round the track. Another team came up with a travel agents shop window – enticing customers in with beautifully designed posters displaying the range of destinations on offer before an advisor recommends the best product.

Both analogies were different but founded on the same principle: Trust. The racing driver puts their trust in the crew to put the tyres on safely and quickly while the customer trusts the holiday expert to provide the best advice according to their needs and desires.

Before the session we worked closely with Paul to design a bespoke programme to respond to the issues and opportunities in local government over the next 12 months. During those discussions three key themes emerged – resilience, adaptability, and emotional intelligence.

In what is being referred to as a ‘permacrisis’ – a term used to describe an extended period of instability and insecurity following the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of new crises, like the spy balloon, the role of PR as a strategic function has never been more obvious but managing expectations and keeping up with demand requires a resilient, adaptable and highly emotionally intelligent team.

Let’s break each theme down…

Resilience – “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties.” The pandemic was our single most important test as a PR team. Fortunately, our proactive approach to emergency communications planning and close links to our civil contingencies team meant we were ready, or at least, as ready as we could be for an event of this magnitude. Careful planning and preparation were key to our response and something which every local authority communications team needs to respond to future threats.

Adaptable –“able to adjust to new conditions.” The world in which we operate is constantly changing and so is our audience’s attitude, behaviour and priorities. To ensure our work remains relevant and hits our target audience, it’s important we listen to what matters to our residents and use these insights to prepare useful and effective communication.

Emotionally intelligent – “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Ensuring our brand is emotionally intelligence in its tone of voice and the way we engage residents and our networks of influence will be crucial to earning trust in this age of insecurity.

Just two months in and 2023 looks set to be another year of uncertainty, but what is certain is that Public Relations has never been more important to helping organisations earn trust and individuals to feel safe.

Lucy Downham is PR Manager at Wigan Council and an LGcomms Executive Committee member.


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