Five things we’ve learned about speaking truth to power

In this ‘post truth’ era the facts have never been more important, or more contested, in public debate. The phrase ‘speak truth to power’ was coined in 1955, by American Quakers, but the words have a timeless and mission-statement air to them. How can think tanks and research institutions can both maintain both credibility and good working relationships when their findings are ‘inconvenient’? What should you do if you spot politicians or public figures spreading misinformation?

Last month our Breakfast Club heard from expert speaker Phoebe Arnold from Full Fact, the UK’s independent factchecking charity. The event was held Soapbox’s Whitechapel studio and also featured a roundtable discussion, held under Chatham House rule. Here are five things we learned about speaking truth to power:

1. Everything can be spun

Maintaining the role of a critical friend can be a complex task in the media landscape. Your new killer research findings might not get any coverage at all, while point 19 of 20 in your report could be written up in the press as something highly controversial if it happens to be a slow news day.

You can make educated guesses ‘til the cows come home, but how your research and press releases will be interpreted in the public sphere is never an exact science. On top of that, you never know how exactly how ‘the powerful’ will react. Sometimes comms professionals have found that private meetings are refused after public comments. This is the risk we run, but this is where holding your nerve is important.

2. Confidence is as important as the correct information

Those in power might be wrong and you might be right, but no one will know unless you say so. We should have the confidence to back-up our assertions and defend them in public, but it can be scary. As emerged in the discussion, confidence is both a personal asset and an institutional one.

It’s often the case that the larger the institution, the more cautiously it moves. Funding and working relationships spanning decades can make it more daunting to speak out. However, it’s worth bearing in mind (or gently reminding your senior team) that public figures are probably very used to constructive criticism. In fact, they will likely be far more comfortable with a ‘robust’ debate than your organisation is.

Finding the correct balance of confidence and caution is crucial, and it will be different for every organisation.

3. Thinking strategically can solve a lot of your problems

Short-term attention for your organisation or your cause can be tempting, but it’s important to play the long game. Some think tanks could be on the news every week if they were willing to respond to every request for comment or publicly correct every mistake, but that won’t necessarily help build working relationships and create change long-term. Some caution is advised, or, as one attendee put it: “you should always be one notch more boring than you could be.”

There’s often a tension between mission and credibility, and this is where your media strategy can help. If an opportunity isn’t plottable with your media strategy: don’t do it.

4. Sometimes there just aren’t the stats to prove something one way or the other

Prime Minister’s Questions is the classic example: one party has one set of facts showing one thing, another party has a competing set of facts apparently showing the opposite. Both facts could be technically correct, but clearly neither one is representing the whole picture.

This weaponised space is where public policy wonks are often brought in to be referees and occasionally it’s just too close to call. Sometimes the data doesn’t exist, other times it can’t be used to prove something one way or another. For example: you can’t fact-check the future.

Dealing confidently with nuance and uncertainty in public debate is an increasingly important part of the policy communications role. “We don’t know” might not sound authoritative, but if you can explain the landscape in a way which informs the debate: you’re acing your job.

5. Speaking truth to the powerless is becoming as important as speaking truth to power

The storminess of the current political climate is changing the game. Politicians are more cautious when they’re preoccupied about keeping their jobs. Some organisations are less scared of irritating or offending politicians who might not be there for long, but it’s more difficult to keep your organisation’s issues on the agenda when personnel change frequently.

Increasingly, it’s not facts given to ministers that change public policy, so much as public opinion – but public opinion can be informed and changed by facts. The potential audience for policy communications is getting broader, but your insights need to be honed for diverse audiences.

Research can be constructed and used to sway public opinion. If this is your aim you need your messaging to be bold and clear enough to reach the uninterested proportion of the population who only get their news from radio bulletins.

But facts themselves are often complicated and nuanced.

So what can we do? There will be a lot of judgement calls to make, but it’s important to make sure your organisation remains confident, credible, and keeps all those working relationships friendly so that – when you do need to be a critical friend – those in power know that it’s coming from the right place.


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