By the time I had returned to the office on Friday from speaking at the #Polis11 conference at LSE (curator: @CharlieBeckett), a colleague had already received an excited e-mail from a local politician asking for a transcript of my five minutes on An Informed Society? Apparently, I was ‘making waves’ – though the broad themes I covered will be quite familiar to readers of this blog. True, I opened – in answer to the suggestion that I might be something of a PR heretic - with the assertion that the Age of Spin was dead and that the communications industry might do well to offer a mea culpa for much of the mess in which the world now finds itself, not least the relentless drive towards super-consumption and the consumerization of everything. These subjects have been covered in the original version of Citizen Renaissance and blog posts passim.
Following on from opening comments by @stellacreasey (Labour MP for Walthamstow), The Guardian’s John Harris, and @juliahobsbawm, I was struck by how even the most SM-aware among us can quickly fall into an Establishment trap of participating in false hierarchy and eroded authority. Harris made the point that, in our frenetic world, journalism has to insert itself somewhere; Creasey made the same point about politics and politicians. Yet I am not convinced that we, as citizens, owe any trust or respect to either journalists or politicians wherever and however they insert themselves – unless they can earn the right of trust by behaving and participating ‘just like us’, on our terms and in our worlds. This is nothing personal. It is just the way it now increasingly is. An Informed Society brings a new chaos, for sure, but – in so many ways and to borrow from Star Wars – a new hope also by freeing us all from accepted convention structures and beliefs.
My bottom line is that, increasingly, people who think they can tell us what to think, really cannot. We are seeing a fundamental re-alignment of relationships and authority. This is of course driven by technology but is not about technology itself. This re-alignment ushers in a new trust paradigm and provokes thought of a new Social Contract between Government, Citizens, Media, Business and the Third Sector. Within this framework, we are beginning to learn to trust one another – our fellow citizens – over so-called (or self-anointed?) authority figures, whether they are politicians, journalists, medics, businesses or brands. One of the best things the Cameron government can do to accelerate The Big Society is to properly, digitally enfranchise those who do not have the same access to social media and networks as the liberal elite. Let us all participate together.
There has been a tendency to date, I believe, to straightjacket the Informed Society. This may or may not be accidental, though I am no conspiracy theorist. Properly recognised, an Informed Society takes us far beyond the democratisation of information: it is about more than access to information; it is about more than citizen journalism; it is about more than the axiomatic rise of Social Media. For me, these are mere consequences. An Informed Society recognises the fundamental power shift towards Shared Interests and Shared Values.
In my day job, advising companies and brands (and as I have posted before) just as an Informed Society can lead to a Tahrir Square for despots and regimes, so there is now a Tahrir Square waiting to happen for a company or a brand. An Informed Society sees the mis-treatment of employees; an Informed Society sees the poor performace of corporate leadership; an Informed Society can expose the lack of ethics in the supply chain – and an Informed Society now has the power to act. In short, an Informed Society not only thinks for itself, but also takes action.
In this sense, we are all Actionists and Activists now, with the power to lobby, advocate, hold to account and dismiss. An Informed Society is an engaged and active society – and that engagement needs to be continual, meaningful and properly connected.
Thus a new hope is born. An Informed Society offers a celebratory cause for optimism. It can and should be hugely transformative. This is where my personal (Citizen Renaissance) and professional (Edelman’s Public Engagement framework) confluence. Citizens must hold ‘authority’ figures to account and help address the big issues of our times, from Climate Change to the Wellbeing Imperative. Public Engagement, properly practised, steers the communications world into a more transformative role: advancing shared interests in the stakeholder world. Making progress, together.
An Informed Society that flourishes on this basis also demands new operating principles, characterised elsewhere as Citizen Truths and Civic Principles. These must be based on Shared Values and look more to Aristotle than to ‘Spin Doctors’ past: truth, justice, prudence, faith, respect and honesty. In an Informed Society, these are far more important than the tick-box compliance that governments or corporate governors prefer to impose.
All of which takes us back to theme of the four Citizen Truths that we have explored before:
- That we have to stop thinking of citizens as consumers and that citizen values must win out over selfish consumer desires. We have to stop consumerising everything; stop bringing the X-factor to politics; stop dumbing down real democracy.
- That we must appreciate that citizens are equal partners in the drive for change. Empowerment does not lie in the gift of politicians, journalists or business leaders
- That the power pyramid has been inverted and that, if anything, digitally driven networks of shared interests and values are the ‘new’ authority figures
- That this re-alignment of power must take place in the workplace, as well as in the shopping malls. Only then will it properly impact across the stakeholder universe.
I found myself broadly agreeing with Stella Creasey’s assertions (in her recent LSE paper on Perpetual Engagement) that media and messaging can deliver social change. Of course I agree that single platform dominance is over and that, in many senses, the great British public is already more active than we give them credit for. I agree that people crave a conversation and not a broadcast monologue – and that the future for us all lies in the perpetual process of engagement.
Creasey sees this all as a political imperative. But it is equally a business imperative and a media imperative also. Above all it is a social imperative – because an Informed Society must lie at the heart of the progressive agenda.