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24.06.2020 By George Coleman, Joint CEO, Current Global

“Twitter is not the country”.

Photograph of a group of around 10 people using selfie sticks. They are taking selfies of themselves in front of the New York skyline. They are all wearing sunglasses.

The phrase popped up in my feed recently, in reaction to someone else’s sweeping generalisation of public sentiment. Never a truer or pithier axiom said, but one which many of us forget, or put aside.

It’s a natural result of our unconscious biases. Our desire to seek confirmation. We instinctively react positively to things and people we agree with, that add credence to our world point of view. That give us a sense of conformity. It also means turning a blind eye to information that might challenge our assumptions.

Falling into that unconscious trap leads us to what the self-styled ‘ad contrarian’ Bob Hoffman terms “marketing by selfie-stick – narcissism disguised as strategy”. Or, in other words, we develop campaigns that appeal to ourselves with only a superficial nod to understanding the needs, wants and desires of the actual intended audience.

And in these extraordinary and tragic times, this creates a more present threat to our clients than ever. It was a problem pre-crisis, and with 7 out of 10 consumers saying they would stop buying products or services from a brand perceived to have behaved irresponsibly during the pandemic, a misstep in communications could have significant consequences.

My Twitter feed, which includes many PR professionals, is increasingly full of commentary that appears to be heavily influenced by unconscious biases. I’m not passing any judgement on the opinions themselves, or indeed the motivation behind them. Rather, I have a concern on the basis of which it may translate into strategic advice for clients.

The heightened pressure we are all operating under is challenging. But any loss of objectivity, command of the facts, and understanding of how our key audiences really think or feel, may lead us to giving risky consultancy.

As an industry in general, according to the PRCA Census, we are nothing like the audiences we serve on almost every ethno-demographic dimension. We’re younger (well some of us), more London-centric, more likely to have been privately schooled, less ethnically diverse and so forth.

The PR community tends to operate in a bubble and, I would argue, are increasingly disconnected from real people, real lives.

So it is incumbent on us, now more than ever, to listen to what people say matters to them, not just ask them the questions that matter to us. We must embrace diversity in our own teams to help ensure we embrace diversity of thinking, opinions and experiences – internally and externally. Irrespective of our own political persuasion, our personal view on scientific advice or government policy should not form a proxy for the mood of the general population.

For me, Brexit was a watershed moment. As the son of a European immigrant, I was an ardent Remainer. Whilst I had seen the signs the vote would be close, it still came as a shock. My unconscious bias had influenced the rational signals I had observed.

Fast forward, and understanding human behaviour and real lives is core to the agency I now have the good fortune to lead. And every day I purposefully remind myself: Twitter is not the country.

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