Marlborough Sounds debate highlights the ‘Context Trap’

There’s a weary old line of thought in the world of corporate communication, still trotted out in Public Relations 1.0 lectures, that any criticism of an organisation can be countered with a barrage of facts, figures and statistics lovingly referred to as ‘context’. Bright-eyed students are assured that this ‘context’ is the elixir with which they can persuade a sceptical audience that their client or employer is maligned, blameless or simply misunderstood.

Trouble is, context can take you only so far if common sense and an innate feeling of natural justice are working against you. If the disconnect is too great between what is legal and what is moral, the argument that you were working within the law carries little weight and can actually damage your case.

It’s this rider to the ‘context’ defence that is too frequently overlooked, forgotten or plain-old ignored.

Which is why we witnessed the unedifying spectacle recently of New Zealand’s Marlborough District Council trying to defend itself against charges of allowing the use of methyl bromide – a colourless, odourless, ozone-depleting and highly neuro-toxic gas – by a local log exporter at Port Marlborough in the heart of the staggeringly beautiful Marlborough Sounds.

Emotion is the ‘killer app’ here. For corporate communication to be effective it really needs to appeal to the heart as well as to the head.

Faced with a mob of angry residents alleging that young children were being poisoned, dockers being killed, ferry passengers and staff being put at risk and all manner of fish and wildlife being decimated, what did the Council have to say for itself?

“We are five times stricter than most other places in New Zealand, with one part per million as the allowable amount,” a spokesman intoned.

Compare that with this gem of a soundbite from one of the protestors: “This year they released 10 tonnes over us. A few years down the track the kids could be sick. It’s a bloody serious thing.”

Forget the facts and figures, the much-vaunted ‘context’: of these two responses which seizes the moral high-ground?

Emotion is the ‘killer app’ here. For corporate communication to be effective it really needs to appeal to the heart as well as to the head. Too frequently we forget this and the result is a flat, dull, uninspiring, unconvincing and consequently losing performance.

What would I be doing if I was representing the Marlborough District Council? I’m afraid that’s the bit I charge a fee for! Suffice to say that I would not have tried to deal with the issue at a packed Council meeting, then refuse to allow a residents’ representative to address the gathering.

The solution is so easy it’s laughable. But first we’ve got to start thinking on a human scale, and as people – not automatons. People with our own children, communities, cares and concerns. And let’s treat the ‘context’ as it should be treated: as support for the core proposition, not as the proposition itself.

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