Government comms mistakes can drive the disaffected to extremism, warns report

Errors in government comms risk driving disaffected, 'fractured audiences' towards extremism, warns a major new report by WPP.

A rioter throws a chair at police officers during a protest over the Austerity Bill vote in Athens last May (pic credit: Athena Pictur/REX/Shutterstock)
A rioter throws a chair at police officers during a protest over the Austerity Bill vote in Athens last May (pic credit: Athena Pictur/REX/Shutterstock)
Drawing on the views of government comms professionals from 40 countries, including Britain, the report states: "Respondents to this research echo findings from the World Economic Forum that suggest a lack of proper communication is also influencing an increasing movement towards populism, radicalisation and extremism."

The Future of Government Communications report adds: "When people feel ignored, unheard and unrepresented, they turn to alternative sources of information. If governments do not communicate with citizens properly, citizens will simply go elsewhere for information."

The report, released towards the end of January, claims that government comms professionals are facing "unprecedented" challenges in a climate where the trust placed by people in government is in decline.

Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications, drew attention to the report in a recent tweet in which he highlighted "trust, skills & listening," among the themes which it examines. 

"Communication leaders in many governments who were interviewed for this research say they are struggling to combat declining levels of public trust in government, and that they lack the ability to keep pace with how citizens communicate and engage in the 21st century," warns the report.

Although advances in technology in recent years have given governments a greater choice of channels through which to communicate, "that same technology has fractured audiences. It is enabling misinformation to be corroborated by anonymous users and politicians alike, and at ever-increasing speeds," the report states.

Trust, audience, conversation, capability and influence are identified as the five global challenges faced by comms professionals. 

"Falling levels of trust in government is cited by government leaders who took part in this research as the key issue facing government communicators," according to the report.

A majority of comms leaders who took part in the research describe a pattern of "disconnection and dishonesty" between politicians and the public that is culminating in a "post-truth" era. 

This is defined by the report as "the rise of a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored."

In a statement to PRWeek, responding to the report’s findings, Aiken said: "I read the report with a huge amount of interest - and it raises some valid and interesting points. The focus here in government, and right across the Government Communications Service, is to continually improve and set the bar for public sector communications across the world."

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