Clear communication = brilliant content

It is refreshing to have the opportunity to write about Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs in a positive vein.

The folk who work there do not make the rules, any more than those who work within HM Treasury. The people whom we elect do that – yet another argument against the simple, sneering Russell Brand school of avoiding one’s civic duty to vote.

Many of us like to think that we know how our taxes are spent. Actually most of us don’t – or didn’t until recently.

HMRC has taken to sending out annual statements to all taxpayers to highlight where the money goes. It’s a brilliant piece of communication that deserves to be applauded.

The message completely contradicts popular thinking as espoused by many, er, popular pundits and does so simply, clearly and without any superfluous commentary.

As a piece of clear communication and useful content it sits somewhere close to the top of the pile for its straightforward excellence.

Wouldn’t it be great if only Google, Facebook, Amazon and other Silicon Valley giants were so honest about tax?

Should you run towards, or away from, a policeman who is holding a gun?

Schools that send pupils on trips to London and elsewhere routinely provide their students with practical advice about security and how they can help keep themselves and their friends safe. This advice is now standard operating communication in schools.

But, to parents as well as pupils and other folk going about their lawful business, security messages have started to sound like charity appeals. They blur into one relentless monologue and, whoever we are, we generally tend to tune out the warnings unless there’s an armed policeman barking orders at us. Oh, and here’s a tip: best not run towards her or him as that can be misinterpreted as an act of aggression and end badly.

A thoughtful piece by psychologist Stephen Grosz, published in the FT Magazine in 2011, a snippet of which is below, contains important clues about personal survival. Its content communicates clearly, and illustrates vividly, why one crucial element to surviving a terror incident is to take control of your own life rather than wait for instructions; instructions which may well come too late.

You can find a full version of the piece, which forms a chapter in his book, along with other fascinating insights into the human psyche in Grosz’s The Examined Life. You never know; it might just save your life, limbs or loved ones.Page scan from Stephen Grosz's 'The Examined Life' - Should you run towards, or away from, a policeman who is holding a gun?

Clever content trumps trolls

Clear, straightforward, factually accurate and truthful writing has always been the single best way to inspire, engage and communicate with fellow humans.

At a time when an alarming number of minds are influenced by unverified material they read on social and digital media, this is more relevant than ever.

There are several good aspects to social media, but there is one significantly bad one: that people can attack others, without mercy or fear of retribution.

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“You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist.” *

At a recent ‘Media meets Business’ event, a leading industrialist asked the editor of one of our grandest and most respected newspapers why his newspaper contained so many factual, grammatical and spelling errors.

“Because we no longer have the time to check these things,” he replied. He could have added that his organ, in common with most newspapers and magazines, no longer employs trained and immensely knowledgeable sub-editors to do this all-important job.

The industrialist concerned, who told me the story, confesses himself to be nonplussed.

“Imagine if we told our customers that we had no time to check that all the bolts were tight before we delivered new cars,” he commented. “We would swiftly have been out of business, and rightly so.”

Car company customer service departments are staffed by people who, whatever their personal beliefs, tend to make Zen Buddhists look hyper-active. Hour after hour, day after day, they politely listen to people who complain about real and imagined product failures to demand either a refund, or compensation, often both.

Now what, I wonder, would happen if newspapers and magazines were faced with the same rigorous customer scrutiny? In fact, why are they not?

Perhaps their products are too cheap and thus regarded as having little value beyond entertainment? Or perhaps readers subliminally get that they largely contain paid-for editorial and PR fluff?

In other words, it simply doesn’t matter that much to us. Public scrutiny delivered via social media, we hope, will eventually deliver the truth or at least a close enough approximation of it. But knowing what is, and is not, independent editorial remains a difficulty.

Private Eye (No.1414 18-31 March) illustrates the point.

Will this alleged lack of distinction between advertising and medium have any affect on What Car’s or VW’s credibility and sales? Almost certainly not.

In every commercial sphere, consumers prefer transparency in the communication they receive from brands and the people who work for them. Comment on social media – and as always in the Eye – is increasingly intolerant about unverifiable content, whether indirectly from brand leaders or directly from their customer service teams.

Is ‘blow smoke up our backsides and we’ll go elsewhere’ the new zeitgeist? Maybe sometime soon but not, I suspect, just yet.

*Humbert Wolfe 1885-1940

What do you mean?

When communication matters – really matters – it has to be crystal clear on two levels: meaning and intent.

Recent legislation banning ‘Legal Highs’, Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 is so all-embracing that caffeine, alcohol and tobacco had to be specifically excluded.

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