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Telling the story behind the policy — 3 tips for policymakers

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This article was first published in Apolitcal. It was co-authored with Dr Scott Taylor from the University of Birmingham. You can check out his article "Think Tanks, Business and Civil Society: The Ethics of Promoting Pro-corporate Ideologies" published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

 
 
 

If you have checked any news media today, you’ll likely have read or heard commentary from a policy expert. The economy. National security. Healthcare, data privacy and the rise of artificial intelligence.

Every issue has its experts to step in to explain what is going on and why it matters. Politicians, think tankers and policy experts are ubiquitous commentators in the media. Those who get their communication right can have tremendous influence on public opinion. 

As policymakers, we can all learn from paying attention to these expert communicators.

Navigating the policy labyrinth

The way policy is communicated is critical to how it is received.

Previously shaped predominantly by journalists and policymakers themselves, social media has upended the policymaking landscape and, today more than ever, the public are a key part of what has become a three-way dynamic, alongside the media and government.

Those we would previously have looked to for guidance on the issues of the day – policy experts, academics and the mainstream media – seem irrelevant because their stories and methods lack appeal in an age of social media driven clickbait populism.

The hybrid role played by policy experts – “entrepreneur[s] in the marketplace of ideas” – draws on diverse skill-sets, from political acumen to deep analytical thinking. Communications know-how is a must-have, too, as it is increasingly in every job. 

As the public has become a priority audience for policymakers, the ability to articulate complex, sometimes contentious ideas in an accessible and compelling way is as crucial a skill as being able to convey an idea through the governmental “policy labyrinth”.

So, in a world where communication is a key part of everyone’s job, and we can all be subject to public scrutiny, how can policymakers find their way? Unlike many professions, this one lacks clear guidelines and guidance. 

Our reading and research suggests three ways of thinking about communication to fill this gap:

1. Know your audience and speak their language to deliver compelling and accessible communication.

Knowing the priorities of the people you’re speaking to allows you to craft your message in a way that will resonate. This increases the chances they will support what you’re saying. Increasingly, we look to people like ourselves for ideas to improve society, so successful communicators will position themselves as such. 

If you’re speaking to people with a business or financial background, for example, their ears will be tuned to things that relate to their world, so make sure you bear that in mind when crafting your talking points or proposals.

2. Know when to use facts or emotion, following the rules and reaching out to people.

Relatively benign policy areas can become contentious when they are infused with emotion. A lot of people say they think with their heads over their hearts, but research indicates that people underestimate the role of emotions in their decision making, particularly their own.

Interestingly, 48% of people who work in politics and policy admit to trusting their heart over the head on political issues. Really, this should come as no surprise, especially if winning votes is the priority.

Consider how politicians frame issues and balance appeals to emotion with carefully deployed facts and statistics to get their point across. This allows them to shape the way people understand whole policy areas. Reason must inform policy design, but emotion gets people behind it. And people can read your own emotions on a topic. If you don’t believe in it, it’s unlikely you’ll get others to do so.

3. Earn your license to operate to show you deserve authority and autonomy. 

The politics and policy world is often seen as a black box that only the insiders understand. In the UK, eight-in-ten think those who influence the government need to be accountable, but only four-in-ten think this accountability is a reality. 

This is one of the reasons we’ve seen the rise of global populism, as the public became frustrated bystanders in the conversations that shape their lives. Interestingly, a different story emerges for those who work in politics and policy. 

They are both less likely to place importance on this accountability, and they are far more likely to say that political influencers are already being held accountable. One simple way around this is to welcome the public into the conversation. The first step to that is helping people to understand the what, how and why of policy making, and communicating these in an engaging way.

It’s easy for outsiders to be critical of policymakers and policy experts when they don’t understand the realities of government. High quality communications can help you get around this. Speaking to people in a way they find meaningful, deploying facts and emotions, and welcoming people into the conversation, are all ways to improve policy communication. 

This might help calm social tensions too. Opening a conversation will help people feel they are part of the policymaking process, rather than seeing policy as something that is done to them.

Tom Hashemi
tom@weareflint.co.uk

Dr Scott Taylor
s.taylor@bham.ac.uk

 
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