Bridging the gap between ‘what is said’ and ‘what is heard’  

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As individuals, we’ve all experienced the terrible frustration of miscommunication – the dissonance between what we’re saying and what is being understood.  

Businesses are similarly not immune to miscommunication and there are some famous examples of misunderstandings involving even the largest of organisationsIn 2009, HSBC had to spend $10 million on a rebranding campaign after their slogan, ‘Assume Nothing’ was understood in several countries to mean  ‘Do Nothing’.  

Public relations can play an essential role in ensuring that what you are trying to say, your key messages, are communicated effectively to the people you are trying to reach, your target audience, so that the information is received, understood and in some cases, acted upon. In fact, that couldn’t be more of a textbook definition of PR.  

But what happens when youre facing an audience whose views are so entrenched they can’t hear what you’re saying?  

The story gap  

This is what Catherine Ashford from Crisis UK and Tamsyn Hyatt from the Frameworks Institute discussed during their presentation at the Market Research Society’s Storytelling Virtual Summit, which highlighted the communication challenges they face when talking about homelessness.  

Catherine said: “Stories are powerful and we can identify two clear types. Those that we are told and those we tell ourselves. Both help us as individuals make sense of the world we live in.” 

When it comes to homelessness, Catherine showed that there is a big difference between the story the sector was telling and what is actually being heard by their audiences – in this case, the wider public. Crisis and the Framework Institute have been researching this ‘story gap’ to see how it might be bridged.  

Professionals working within sector understand that people living on the street are dealing with complicated problems like addiction and that these issues are related to other causes of homelessness such as poverty. This is why providing people with the right support early on is so important in preventing homelessness.   

There is plenty of evidence to illustrate this and was explained to respondents as part of a recent Crisis study to see how the general public perceived rough sleepers 

Researchers found participants did recognise that the causes of homelessness were complex and that street sleepers were dealing with difficult circumstances. However, many respondents expressed different views when talking about who was responsible for homelessness, how it was caused and how this might affect the prevention of rough sleeping.  

One participant was paraphrased as saying, ‘[Homeless people] put drink and drugs before their own future and don’t think of anyone else, so they are creating their own destinyI think people make that decision to follow that path. 

Over and over again researchers found that the true-based narrative was unable to dislodge the self-told story of how homelessness is caused and at worse, simply reinforced beliefs already held.  

The study concluded that Crisis had three narrative challenges to overcome Firstly, a very narrow definition of homelessnesscentering on stereotypical views of the homeless as the hobo. Secondly, focus on individualism without considering the wider context or society systems which is epitomised by the person who makes bad choices.  Lastly, that prevention was totally absent from people’s thinking. This triptych leads to fatalism, belief that no change is possible.  

Change is possible  

So, what can be done in the face of such long-held views? Ultimately, the story needs to be reframed, told in a different way so that the key messages are received and understood.  

For Crisis their research found that using stories to explain the constant pressures in our lives and how close some of us are to the brink helped to shift people’s understanding.  

On social media, Crisis highlighted stories of constant pressure on social media with tweets such as ‘In the UK, we believe in supporting each other. But right now, people are struggling to afford the basics. This constant pressure is what can finally push people and families into homelessness #ThisCanChange’ (November 2019)   

By using storiespeople are able to think about homelessness in a new way, develop a strong mental picture and understand the problems of homelessness and how it might happen in a straightforward way.  

 

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A post shared by Crisis (@crisis_uk)

Similarly, Crisis also found that talking about different experiences of homelessness and putting this into context was also key. Using case studies but paired with wider contextual data showed that these were not ‘one-off’ stories and helped to explain why change is needed to wider social systems which contribute and aid rough sleeping.  

In the last Crisis Autumn Appeal, the team produced an infographic with a breakdown of the different types on homelessness in Great Britain and also shared independent stories.  This was designed to refocus the ‘blame’ for homelessness on wider systems rather than an individual’s actions 

Bridging the gap  

Ultimately, communication is a two-way process. In our role as PR professionals, not only do we help our clients communicate their core messages to their stakeholders, but we are also responsible for listening to our target audiences and registering if message has been understood or not.  These learnings are then factored back into our ever-evolving communication plans so whatever you are trying to say is really heard.  

If you’d like help communicating your key messages to your target audience, get in touch – jessica@twelvepr.co.uk  

 

 

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