Transparency in communications

Here are some reflections from Shaun Chamberlin over at Dark Optimism about Common Cause.

He puts his finger on one of the key challenges that this work raises – the subject of prolonged debate in the course of putting the report together. It’s one thing to understand that decision-making is importantly driven, not by a cold and rational consideration of the facts, but by value-laden emotional responses to situations. But how do we respond to this understanding?

Inescapably, all communciations and campaigns serve to activate and strengthen particular values – and these may be either helpful, or unhelpful, in terms of addressing the social and environmental challenges that we collectively confront.

But if we can’t strip the values out of the communications (and we really can’t) we can at least strive for greater transparency about what values we are activating with a particular campaign or communication, and why.

How that transparency is achieved is an open question. Is it, for example, a page on a website, or an appendix to a report: a section that presents a quick bit of frame analysis and makes clear the values that a communication is likely to activate, and the probable effects of these values?

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

Tom CromptonTransparency in communications

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  • Anonymous - June 29, 2011 reply

    By Shaun Chamberlin: 

    Glad you found my reflections interesting Tom – I’ve already had a few critical responses along the lines of “this is just exploring how to do propaganda better”, but I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you!In answer to your question – I rather like the idea of the end of each TV ad being a voiceover: “this ad seeks to activate your latent sense of responsibility to future generations”, “this ad aims to generate fear in order to activate your desire for a strong leader and vote X” etc :)But in the meantime I would have thought an appendix in written communications and a page on websites would be a great leap forward. Ideally it would be in some kind of standardised format, to allow for easy comparison and contrast. Maybe developing such a thing would be a good project for this working group?And as you suggested in your comments elsewhere, although Transition has made a conscious choice not to pay for any advertising/marketing of itself, awareness of these kinds of issues within the movement is unusually high, I think (partly thanks to Rob’s work and discussions around positive visioning), so I think it could be a useful supporter/disseminator of your important work.Oh, and Martin, Solitaire’s comments and Tom’s response are already linked from my post – just click the relevant text (if it’s green, it’s a link).Cheers,Shaun

  • Anonymous - June 29, 2011 reply

    By Martin Kirk: 

    Interesting thoughts. It reminds me of what Lakoff says about the difference between spin and using frames. Spin is about starting with an idea your want to transmit and then crafting whatever facts you have in front of you to fit the idea. Using frames is something like the opposite – it’s taking an understanding of how ideas travel in and through people, and being precise with what you say and do to express your ideas faithfully and in full depth.I wonder if transparency is about reputation as much as showing the workings and drivers of each individual campaign/policy/comms. Like audited accounts. Most people aren’t interestd in exploring campaigns to a depth that requires genuine transparency oat every turn, just as almost no ohne goes through a company’s accounts to check they’re kosher before buying from them; for 99% of people 99% of the time, it’s enough to know that they could. So I suppose we could have a web page, or an annual report, or a summary of values prominently displayed on the back of each report of product. That’s not really the challenge. The real challenge is how to get people interested enough to build the reputation.I didn’t know about that comment from Solitaire at Futerra. Not surprised, really. Have you got a link to it, and your reply?

  • Jon Barrett - August 11, 2011 reply

    This is a rather late response to an interesting post and comments on transparency and on the potentially off-putting effects of values-laden communications…particularly as I am thinking about to what extent the facilitation of sustainability education can or should be neutral. As an individual I am very aware that my values-based and emotional responses to unsustainable systems and behaviours are far from neutral, but (as in counselling practice directed at achieving the subject’s personal acceptance and ownership of problematic behaviours) perhaps my professional approach needs to be.
    Martin puts forward the idea of a “summary of values prominently displayed”. Whilst motivating sustainable behaviour through engaging core values is obviously the desired end-result of the Common Cause approach, I suspect such a declaration could be counter-productive to engaging those who are not already pre-disposed to ‘green’ thinking. It is interesting to see the increasing polarization of opinion on sustainability issues, not just the long-running ‘conservative-white-male-contrarian’ versus ‘commie-eco-fascist- tree hugger’ line but also in the widely reported post-Fukishima spat over nuclear power between environmentalists and in the reactive language used by Solitaire Townsend to discredit Common Cause (and also, by the way, the Dark Mountain Project). Whilst Futerra’s dissent from the values-orientation of Common Cause is relatively ‘in-house’ in terms of public profile and is therefore unlikely to confuse the layperson, it does indicate the likely response to a “summary of values prominently displayed” by those who seek as little disturbance as possible to life as we presently live it!
     I notice that this website’s homepage actually commences not with a statement of values but with a factual premise:
    “The world currently faces some big, serious and growing problems. From global poverty, to human rights violations, to child abuse, to environmental destruction”
    Perhaps transparency is better aided by being explicitly upfront about the  premises that sustainability campaigns and education initiatives are based on rather than on a declaration of the values that motivate campaigners/educators. As a sustainability communicator, my own attempt at transparency is to state up front the key premises I am basing my work upon, as in the following (from my LinkedIn profile)…
    1/ Unsustainable human systems are causing life-threatening environmental degradation as well as running up against physical and biological limits, as evinced by increasing ecological, economic and geo-political insecurities around the world.2/ Various intractable cultural, institutional and psychological barriers exist to obstruct societal change from unsustainable living systems. Without widespread improved understanding of what constitutes ecological sustainability, these barriers will continue to impede public motivation and mobilisation towards adopting sustainable behaviours.3/ The extent of ecological degradation is too far advanced to be entirely reversible. Ecological sustainability is as much about adapting to an increasingly resource constrained world as it is about mitigating environmental impacts.4/ It is impossible to predict the future except to say that it will be unlike our assumptions of the recent past. But expert opinion anticipates escalating social and geo-political unrest and resource conflicts. Ecological sustainability therefore requires relational and ethical understanding of environmental equity at both global and local levels.5/ People adapt and modify their beliefs and behaviours according to personal experiences. An experiential values-based approach to exploring issues of sustainability can motivate measurable and meaningful shifts to sustainable behaviours. 
    Each and all of the above premises are ideas that I “want to transmit”. But unlike Lakoff’s description of spin communications as “crafting the facts” to fit without declaring their underlying (manipulative) intent, by publically stating my premises (or my ‘frames’ of reference, I suppose), I am hoping to invite not only assenting responses but also to open up constructive communications with those holding differing views. Gaining acceptance of these ‘big picture’ premises seems to me an absolutely necessary prelude to enabling meaningful engagement with the values-based personal decisions that addressing them requires.  
    It seems to me that laying out for public scrutiny the premises that my sustainability education work is founded is less likely to provoke hostile or defensive reactions than shortcutting straight to the values-based issues that underlie unsustainability. As campaigners/educators for social change, we might understand that values of social solidarity, social equity and so forth must be engaged but stating these as givens can quickly provoke accusations of manipulative moralizing or social engineering and thus close down the constructive developmental processes and dialogue through which we are hoping to enable people to arrive at these same conclusions for themselves.
    By the way, I looked for the page on becoming involved with Common Cause working groups as I am interested to do so…but it came up as Not Found.   

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