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Substance and Spin – Recent events hold lessons for soccer fans – and others!


Okay, if the fate of the World Cup had reflected the quality of the merchandising rather than the quality of the football, we might have won……!

Yet again, there is good reason to wonder whether we are all too prone to the ephemeral lure of the spin rather than the underlying substance. It’s part of a wider malaise in society where the packaging is becoming more important than the product; we all see it everywhere – in politics, in medicine, in education, sport, the arts – even in charities and the voluntary sector.

So all-pervasive is this trend that it is difficult to imagine anyone bucking it. Imagine a politician keeping the image-makers at bay, and refusing to be groomed and coached to conform to the media template that suits the conventional style of coverage. Imagine a Local Authority Chief Executive being brave enough to shun the current craze for sending out glossy municipal magazines or slashing the budget for media relations.

Forget about changing such practices; they’re here to stay, particularly as most people concede the need to communicate more with citizens. But let’s pay more attention to the substance. We could start with consultations. Too many still wax eloquently about Your right to be heard whilst providing insufficient scope for real debate and too little motivation to participate.

The key to persuading stakeholders to turn up is having confidence in the integrity of the exercise – not the more superficial razzamatazz of the accompanying packaging. By allegory, think about flying flags rather than playing better football!

Clearly, important public consultations should be supported by effective and professional PR. It is important to ensure maximum visibility among those most directly affected, and to use appropriate techniques to widen access to the debate. A balance, however, has to be struck. Media relations staff must resist the temptation to over-sell the Have Your Say hype; consultation project managers must retain their focus on providing effective choices and stimulating meaningful debate. Stop telling the marketing people that there are significant options when there aren’t any!

When spin and substance get out of balance, expectations are unfulfilled, and stakeholder scepticism is fuelled. Citizens respond to the flag-waving, but are disappointed when the consultation founders on penalties. For, as in football, the most critical moments in a consultation often come at the very end. It’s not the quality of the questionnaires or the facilitation of focus groups that ultimately matter. It’s how the opinions gathered influence real decisions or policies, and it’s at this final stage of the process that stakeholders lose faith.

Better preparation and the development of balanced media coverage can prevent such disillusion, and ensure the spin does not upstage the substance.

Trigger points

  • Study the text and style of your recent consultations – was the PR appropriate?
  • Focus your efforts on ensuring an effective, meaningful debate; are the choices genuine?
  • Sign up for the first specialist Seminar on Consultation & the Media

This is the 63rd Tuesday Topic; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement


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About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

Read more about Rhion

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