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Who should we be communicating with?

“Whether we like it or not, we environmentalists are in the same boat as whoever we feel least comfortable sharing with”

Mark Simpson – National Public Relations Manager, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Communicate Committee member. Mark shares his personal experience communicating with people who share different viewpoints to his own and the people within his social network.  

My Uncle Derek prides himself on his record of having letters published in The Telegraph. Now, I’m sure that’s enough information for an image to start forming in your mind.

Early last summer he drove up from rural Devon to visit me in Bristol. As we wandered round St Andrews he said to me, with some surprise, “People here are actually voting to Remain.” I confirmed that he wasn’t imagining the referendum campaign placards in people’s windows and gardens. He shook his head. “Everyone I know is voting leave. We don’t see those where I live”.

Uncle Derek is also active on Facebook. Not that I needed to be friends with him online to know that his politics are quite different to those of my neighbours, but it did bring it home that what Uncle Derek sees when he logs in is quite different to what I see.

Needless to say, Uncle Derek was very pleased after the outcome of the referendum. Less so, a year on but he’s still smiling.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve always been too scared to broach ‘the environment’ with Uncle Derek. He loves the countryside, but the little he’s said about ‘bloody windmills’ leads me to suspect the discussion would quickly get heated. But thinking about it now, that seems a bit of a cop out.

Right now, the world seems like an uncertain, mixed up place for communicators like us. The US President can, and does, tell the world what he’s thinking in the middle of the night. Many of us create social environments for ourselves online that are completely filled with news sources and friends that reflect only our own values and beliefs. And it’s entirely possible that the news we read is ‘fake’.

Thinking about Uncle Derek made me wonder whether much really has changed. The audience hasn’t changed. Although Uncle Derek is on Facebook, he has a similar experience when he walks through his village with his paper under his arm. As communicators, should we worry less about understanding the media and put more effort into understanding our audiences? That way the world might seem a little less mixed up.

But which audiences? Should I speak to Uncle Derek or should I stick to chatting to my neighbours? With so many social media tools at our disposal, it’s possible to retreat and focus all our communications on our supporters. They’ll lap up what we say. There’s certainly an argument for mobilising our supporters, rather than spending all our energy on losing battles. Go for the low hanging fruit first?

I suspect the answer is both yes and no. The one thing that sticks with me most from years of attending Communicate came from Ben Summerskill. He said “if you find yourself speaking in a room full of people who agree with you, you’re probably in the wrong room”.

I really should make an effort to be in the same room as Uncle Derek. If nothing else, at least I’d find out what he actually thinks.

The natural world is no different from any other public issue. We can’t do it on our own. Whether they like it or not, my Bristol neighbours are in the same boat as Uncle Derek. Whether we like it or not, we environmentalists are in the same boat as whoever we feel least comfortable sharing with: take your pick of farmers, developers, big business…

And we don’t need to be worried. We all have an Uncle Derek somewhere, someone who we know well but thinks about the world in a different way. Let’s not be scared of speaking to Uncle Derek. After all, we have a lot in common. These are uncertain times, but aren’t they always?

Communicate 2017: Navigating Change, explores our ‘echo chambers’ and a world with ‘fake news’; the social bubbles we sustain with our neighbours and supporters, and the false information that muddies the waters.

Communicate is the UK’s conference for environmental communicators, bringing together over 150 delegates each year to develop their skills, share best practice and debate the latest issues in engaging people with the natural world.

Find out more here

Communicate 2017 is sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council www.esrc.ac.uk