Here’s an interesting exercise for public relations practitioners – deconstructing the “personal” Tony email sent to everyone who completed the anti-road pricing epetition.
Lots of facts are presented in the email to support the government position and attempts are made to counter arguments that have been made against road pricing. But is there real public engagement, evidence of a willingness to listen, any possibility of two-way symmetric communications?
Credibility is a big public relations issue here – so why would a long email, simply presenting a one-sided view point influence anyone?
Of course, many other voices have used this petition for their own purposes. There are a lot of questionable points made by Ray Massey in the Daily Mail’s support for the epetition. Interestingly Hitwise Intelligence reports (via Stuart Bruce) that the newspaper was the fourth largest provider of traffic to the epetitions website (4 weeks ending 17/2/07). The Mail is good at stimulating action in relation to its current “hot issue”.
But in terms of getting the public involved in politics more widely, what is the value of a simple yes/no question on complex issues? Action was taken by 1.8 million people who felt sufficiently motivated to register their opinion. Many more undoubtedly became an “active public” in discussing the topic through personal and public discussion. But does this mean their opinions matter?
In the email, there is recognition of this is a “complex subject” which requires a debate over the choices faced at local and national levels. Will we see opportunities for the active publics to be “engaged”? Where are the requests for the public to make their own suggestions of what can be done?
Well, the chance to “reply” is to submit a question in advance for a webchat with Dr Stephen Ladyman on the No.10 site on Thursday 22 February. No time or URL was provided – but it is 1600 GMT; http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page11046.asp. I’m sure that will be a carefully managed “debate”. Further information promoted in the email turns out to be a list of “road pricing myth busters” and a “range of voices” who all more or less support road pricing.
This week has also seen extention of the London Congestion zone despite public opposition expressed during “consultation”. There is talk that resentment may be expressed in the next Mayoral election against Livingstone – but is a single issue that powerful against other interests? Some people are defeating the “congestion” beating message by purchasing electric vehicles – which highlights the flaws in the supposed point of the “anti-car” zone.
It is hard to feel that political expressions of participating in social media, public engagement, etc are not simply the usual hot air. Rather than being active publics, most people are probably apathetic – suffering from learned helplessness.
In Grunig’s situational terms – publics have high problem recognitiion and level of involvement, but increasingly have high constraint recognition, feeling there is little they can do about matters they care about.
By the way, if you feel there has been too much hype against road pricing – you are invited to complete the “Don’t Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy epetition. So far 3,337 have registered here.