Is change communication on the wane – like George Pell?

There is one word – change – which unerringly strikes fear into people in private, public and not for profit organisations. When it is linked in the meaningless two word mantra – change management – it is about as damaging to organisational cultures as Tony Abbott’s three word slogans were to politics.

The problem is that most people, whenever they hear the word, know their organisation is about to be turned upside down; the culture trashed, corporate knowledge lost; and, that they and their colleagues are going to be sacked, patronised and/or demeaned. Worse they know that if they do manage to survive the change manager will have moved on after a couple of years to trash a new organisation on the strength of their ‘change management’ enhanced CV. Some years ago the blog wrote a piece on this very process which amused readers as far afield as the BBC (then under the rule of the Dalek, John Birt) although in some quarters was apparently taken seriously.

A typical example of the change language fixation was a speech the blog read a while ago by a very senior bureaucrat in which almost every paragraph contained the words change and/or change management. Politely suggesting that the words might be counter-productive and that, if committed to the concept, some time with a Thesaurus might be useful the blog was told that the words were the bureaucrat’s favourite phrases and would not be changed. And if you want a combination of laughs, rueful smiles and cries of anguish when making a speech or presentation to communicators – always remember to include some lines mocking change and its uses.

Now the PRIA is embracing the word and the 2016 academic stream of the next PRIA Conference will feature papers, according to an invitation PRIA board member Katherine Wolf of Curtin University, has sent asking PR educators to respond to the proposition that: “Change is a defining word of our decade. From our climate, to our technology, to consumer behaviour, to our governments and our jobs, being able to keep pace with change has become a part of everyday life. Public relations and communication, for better or worse, is on the front lines, managing constant upheaval and disruption to the lives of people, the machinations of institutions and the operation of organisations. Innovation in the way we communicate is paramount to our survival.” Up to a point Lord Copper you might well say. However, arguably the key challenge for communicators is to focus less on responding to the latest thing and more on the fundamentals of persuasive communication – framing, narrative, channel selection, trust, transparency and authenticity. And one of the ongoing challenges for communicators is to persuade the people they work for to eschew the language of ‘wars’, the ‘front lines’, ‘battles’ and so on rather than encouraging such false hyperbolic analogies.

The 2015 Hobart PRIA Conference attracted few academic papers and the days of large, engaging academic streams which featured in many conferences some years ago may be over particularly when, with limited budgets, many academics may well prefer more prestigious conferences than those of the PRIA. Nevertheless, there is a cause for optimism – if the PRIA is embracing the change terminology it could be an early indicator that its influence is soon to wane.

Meanwhile, on the subject of waning and communication, what more can anyone say about Cardinal George Pell? Communication under cross-examination is a distinct art which, however hard one tries, is always vulnerable to expert cross-examiners. But the principles of good communication still apply – say as little as possible and make sure it’s convincing and not contradictory. It also seemed appropriate, in terms of the waning of George, that while George was testifying the Turnbull Government quietly announced that the Abbott Government proposal to junk the excellent Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has been dropped. George, along with some of Australia’s trust companies, had been its most trenchant opponent. After all, obviously for some people, transparency is a vice and not a virtue.

And a final note which, if it hadn’t been tragic would have been hilarious. At Adelaide Writer’s Week the blog was listening to a session featuring the novelists Jennifer Clement and Margie Orford. Clement is currently International PEN President and Orford is South African PEN President. Clement has written a novel about the abduction of young girls in Mexico and their subsequent trafficking while Orford has written a series of novels about violence against women in South Africa. Near the end of the session a large man came and sat down in front of the blog. He was wearing a large bush hat. The blog politely asked him to take his hat off. The man bristled, stood up and muttered in a demonstration of the male aggression the two women had been talking about – ‘for f..k’s sake – before storming off. Now if George had heard of a priest doing that would he have said he didn’t remember it, that it wasn’t of interest to him or that it had been kept from him because if he had known he would have done something about the fellow? If you know the answer to that you have a great future as a theologian – if not perhaps in the field of logic.