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Distinctive Dispatch #6: Better comms for people, places and work
Reframing ULEZ; how (not) to act in a crisis; Matt Goodwin's 'new elitism'; how human comms can help businesses stand out; join us!
Thanks for signing up for the Distinctive Dispatch. We hope you all enjoyed the summer and are reading this newsletter in good spirits. The last few weeks were eventful! We’ve been struck by how strategic communications – or lack thereof – has featured in some memorable summer moments. If there are any comms-related matters you’d like us to explore in future newsletters, drop us an email or let us know on the chat.
Concerns over ULEZ: navigating the backlash
If you’re reading this, chances are you've encountered 'Ultra Low Emission Zones', or ULEZ for short.
Promoted as a way to safeguard people’s health and the environment in cities, these zones should be welcomed by those who care about creating cleaner, healthier places. But the reaction to their roll out in cities across England poses questions (which we’ve asked before) about whether supporters are taking the public with them on the journey.
Cities across the world are adopting measures to promote cleaner air and healthier living. But in the UK, they are meeting resistance as discussions around ULEZ become charged. Politicians, keenly attuned to the noise, placed the issue at the heart of the recent by-election in Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge seat, propelling London’s ULEZ drive (sorry) into the headlines.
Looking at recent conversations online using our social listening tool, we found nearly 50,000 posts mentioning the term ULEZ over the course of a week in August. Most of those (44%) were negative in tone, compared to around 20% that were positive.
This image shows some of posts and articles driving most engagement around the time of ULEZ’s launch across London.
It’s hotly contested in some quarters, for sure. Amidst the protests, it seems a clear understanding of the policy and the reasons for it are missing.
It’s unrealistic to expect a change like this to please everyone. But looking at the conversations and following progress in other cities, we believe there are some steps that would help improve understanding. These stem from our three engagement principles, which we apply to any project we support.
Three steps for building trust
#1 Communicate clearly: ULEZ’s problem is that it’s become shorthand for ‘anti-democratic’ measures imposed on communities. Supporters will feel that’s unfair. But instead of getting locked into that argument, why not focus on what this is aiming for? Breathable cities, safer streets and a green legacy not built around car use. Do we even need the acronym 'ULEZ'? We’d suggest not, given what’s at stake.
#2 Connect communities: The digital space is noisy, but it doesn’t represent everyone. This is why reaching beyond those already engaged in this topic is key. Many will appreciate cleaner air and quieter streets. In addition, we know from previous work that trust is an issue here. Yes, we need reliable public transport to make this work. The aim here is to ensure transparency and consistent communication over a long period of time to build and confidence in the process.
#3 Communicate two ways - empathise and listen: Before labelling critics, let's take a breath. The aftermath of the pandemic has left many anxious about rapid change. Topics like ULEZ, the shift to Net Zero, and the concept of 15-minute cities often get lumped together. We need to dial things down and create opportunities for people to get involved in a genuine discussion. That’s on all of us to do.
Building connections, creating trust
Change isn’t easy, even when it’s supported. Open dialogue, proactive engagement, and readiness to listen could help make change happen. And if you're leading such work, consider finding an alternative to ULEZ if you can.
If anyone is involved in or affected by Ultra Low Emission Zones, I would love to know your thoughts.
How (not) to handle a crisis
All crises are different. Only those who are close to them fully understand what’s happening at the time. It takes time for facts around a crisis to emerge, if they ever do.
Comms professionals will often advise people at the centre of a storm over wrongdoing to apologise, take responsibility and set out a plan to put things right. It’s easier to say this than it is to do, for all sorts of reasons. For a start, it takes strong governance, ethics and leadership to make such tough calls.
Those qualities seem sorely lacking in the events that played out since Spanish FA President Luis Rubiales planted an unwanted kiss on the women’s international player Jenni Hermoso in front of a global audience.
If they had followed a more sensible comms approach outlined above, Luis Rubiales’ replacement would already be setting out a roadmap to reform a troubled organisation. Instead, we’ve had a daily diet of denial, claims of ‘fake feminism’, weird chest-beating refusals to resign, legal threats and statements questioning Hermoso’s account.
I can’t recall a worse response to a reputational issue, from an organisation or an individual. And the real tragedy is how it’s overshadowed the women’s team’s achievements and memories of a hugely successful world cup.
Those affected have behaved with much more dignity. Clearly, and sadly, we still have a long way to go.
Things we’ve read
Values, voice and virtue: the new British politics – Matthew Goodwin: Academic Matthew Goodwin’s take on Britain’s problems has been everywhere recently. His latest book places responsibility for our ills with a highly educated, metropolitan ‘new elite’ who have taken hold of our politics, media and cultural institutions and left the wider more traditionally minded public on the sidelines. As a state educated town dweller who has lived outside the South East for almost my whole life, I’ll start with the parts of Goodwin’s analysis that I agree with. Britain is depressingly elitist. Swathes of the country are cut off from opportunities. Prosperty is increasingly concentrated in London and parts of the South East. This has opened the door to populism, here and aborad. And this has been a long-time coming. I just don’t think it’s Emma Watson or Carol Vorderman who should carry the can for this. Other members of the traditional (old) elite bear more responsibility.
Things we’ve said
Putting people at the heart of your communications can help businesses stand out: We wrote this short post as part of a feature for Somerset Chamber of Commerce’s magazine, Somerset Voice in August. Thanks to the team for offering us a slot, and for their support over the last year.
Join the Distinctive Crew! PR account manager job open to applicants: We’re delighted to be hiring again, having started the search for our next PR Account Manager to join our team in Bristol. If you know someone who would be a great fit for the role, this post explains the position and how to apply. We’re accepting applications until 22 September.
The next edition is out on 5 October. Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you want to discuss anything, please leave a comment or drop us a line.
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