Community Relations?

Take a complicated issue and make it easy for the majority of people to understand.

As a former journalist, that was one of the basic tenets of my trade.

I never challenged this, as I was informed by my colleagues that literacy rates in the UK were high (in 2015, 16% of adults were said to have literacy problems); and if the population were to make informed decisions, issues needed to be broken down and simplified for general consumption.

The news coverage of the Grenfall Tower disaster has made me re-think whether my journalistic approach has moved with the times; that the public are able to understand complicated topics and have the sophistication to analyse issues for themselves.

The news media descending upon North Kensington had a very difficult task. Facts were light on the ground in the early hours/days. The experts could only talk in very general terms because of this lack of information and as a result, reporters had to speak to local residents in order to develop content.

Reporters asked the basic questions what did you see/what is life like in the area/what you think should be done to help/who is at fault? Basic queries which would get obvious responses.

The big surprise is that mixed in with the expected reactions were informed and articulate views from locals providing unexpected perspectives. The media were confronted with angry, passionate yet eloquent and lucid views from working class residents.

Reporters were not dealing with the stereotype chav underclass. These were people who had been given a 24/7 platform where they could talk about their experiences and they did so powerfully.

Of just existing on council estates, being ignored by the local authority, feeling marginalised or to have no voice, power or sway in a society, which treated you as invisible if you did not have any influence.

My friends and family were sharing content via Facebook of amazing speakers talking about the ‘reality’, ‘plain’ truth and ‘challenging’ the media. The media, and how it portrayed them, was seen by some of the locals as part of the problem.

Not all the locals interviewed were natural orators but the overall feeling was that the media had not just disregarded a section of the population but had effectively silenced them by failing to engage with them.

As a profession expected to communicate with various stakeholders, have we honestly entered into dialogue with all sections of the community as part of our work or just those we feel comfortable with? Have we truly engaged with our audiences? Was it meaningful?

At this time the residents of North Kensington have their voice back; and they are using it to put everyone on notice that they are not willing to be overlooked any more.

As a communicator, it feels as if the rules of engagement with the public are changing. They are seeking their own sources of news, sharing information via their own channels and if they feel they are being ignored they will no longer be quiet.

They have now joined the conversation. How do we advise our management to respond?

Cornelius Alexander

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