Good change at work, Good change in the world

We can be the changemakers

Public Relations Institute of New Zealand
Changing Mindsets Conference 2019: opening speech 

We’re gathered here today in the name of change.

Each block of presentations in this conference is framed around a different aspect of change, and each presenter will offer their own observations on change.

And for everyone here it’s an opportunity to think about ourselves in the context of change: what is our relationship with change? How does our communication practice reflect the changes in the world? What is the change we want to see in the world, and what are we doing to work towards it – both personally and professionally?

Change is a fascinating conference theme at this moment in our history, when the inherent human fear of change is colliding with accelerating social and political change – creating conflict, uncertainty and volatility around the world.

The concept of change versus stasis is inherent in all of the important polarities of human discourse.

It’s at the core of politics: by definition, to be conservative is to desire to slow the pace of change, and protect or conserve established power structures.  By definition, to be progressive is to seek forward movement and change, or progress. The great balance between these two forces is at the heart of democracy.  It’s what makes democracy one of humanity’s greatest inventions, but also what makes it one of the most difficult structures to uphold, maintain and work within.

The concept of change versus stasis is also at the core of organised religion: Religions were established to codify rules for living, to make sense of the human condition, and create some order from disorder and chaos.  And although it’s possible to be progressive within organised religion, it’s always going to be an uphill battle against the ancient rules and codes and those who resist attempts to change or reinterpret them.

Because here’s the thing.  Humans – as a rule – resist change.  On the whole, we are wired to support the status quo, and to repeat past actions – for therein lies literal safety.

The avoidance of risk is a crucial primal survival technique, and one humans – to this day – adhere to unconsciously.  Our ancient ancestors learnt the patterns of the seasons, patterns associated with our food sources, patterns of predator behaviour.  And we learnt to repond and adhere to those patterns, in order to survive.

But equally, survival relies on change.  We have evolution and every revolution in our history to prove that ultimately, humans advance.

So this is a problem.  Change happens – but our primal wiring means that change is frightening and threatening.  And the more we believe we have to lose, the more threatening and frightening it is, and the more we are likely to resist it.

Rapid change, such as we are seeing in the world today, can be downright terrifying, and the result is conflict.

In her groundbreaking book of 1991, Backlash, Susan Falludi detailed the history of the patriarchal backlash against feminism and gender equality, setting out compelling evidence that progress leads to fierce and often violence opposition.

Now is a time of great progress for women.  I celebrate with all my heart the #MeToo movement, the pay equity movement, the move to have greater gender diversity in everything from popular culture and sport to the Boardroom.  But if I am honest with you, I am also deeply afraid of the backlash that is building.  If you want to see backlash in action, look at America’s fresh push against abortion in many states, or the response to the idea that Ghostbusters might be women.  Closer to home the backlash is visible and audible every single day in the comments on news websites, in social media and on talk radio, and in the statistics of violence against women.

And we can now see in America that the concept of backlash is not limited to gender politics.  Much of what is happening there, from the election of President Trump to the rise in racism and prejudice, can be regarded through the lens of backlash – against a black, educated, and progressive President and everything he and his family represented.

The rise around the world of so-called identarianism is a backlash against decades of progressive politics, against movements towards diversity, and against relatively liberal recent approaches to migration.

The rise of the far right and neo-Nazism in Germany right now can be viewed as a direct result of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s progressive leadership in the height of the migration crisis in 2015.

And in New Zealand, although we pride ourselves on being a moderate nation, we are not immune to backlash, regression and identarianism.

In the wake of March 15 we have been forced to confront – once again – the racism that we harbour in our midst.  In 2004 then National Party leader Don Brash spoke directly to New Zealand’s underlying racism in his now-famous Orewa Rotary Club speech. Although it was met with strong criticism, including then Prime Minister Helen Clark saying he had ripped the scab off our nation’s civility, the result for National and Brash was a rise in the polls – a ten percent increase in two weeks.

Don Brash and his ilk are still whistling the same tune, and much of pakeha New Zealand still cannot squarely look our racism and our colonial past in the eye, and call it what it is.

And so in New Zealand, in the context of backlash, we must ask ourselves what will happen after the time of our progressive leader? What will happen after our time of celebrating gender diversity, decriminalising abortion, reforming gun laws, pursuing gender equity, and striving, if only weakly, for a greater share of power for Maori and other ethnic minorities?  When this period of progressive government ends, will we continue to chart a moderate path as a nation, or will we experience a backlash such as we’re seeing in the US, the UK, Germany and elsewhere?

These are big questions for us as a nation – and they raise big questions for us as citizens, and as a profession.  What does it all mean for us, and how will we respond?

All the changes happening in the world – the conflict, the rapid pace of change, the pressure and the backlash – all of these in theory make our jobs harder.  The demands on us will be greater; the resources leaner; the counter-pressures more extreme.

But now is our time.

Communications is a powerful tool for leading, encouraging, supporting or resisting change.  This means that we – as weilders of this tool – have the potential to be very powerful people.

We have an opportunity to show leadership through our relationship with change.  To see and then be the change we want in the world, and help guide others.

I know that communications people want more influence. And right now we have the opportunity to gain that influence, if we are prepared to exert ourselves to achieve it.

In a world where everyone is trying to either create, resist, arrest or accommodate change; where everyone is trying to understand and make sense of change; communications people can earn real influence through our understanding of the world around us, and the changes that are happening, and through our connection with communities and audiences.

But we cannot be complacent. It’s not really enough now – if it ever was – for communication people to be simply technically good at communications.

Communicating is one of the first things that every single human learns.

To make such a basic human capability our profession?  Well the sheer audacity of it.

And if we’re going to be that audacious, we’d better be bloody good, and we’d better be prepared to meet challenge.  Rght now when organisations are fighting for survival, fighting for a share of voice, a share of funding, fighting to exist – if we as communications people are just turning up and changing words in sentences – the CEOs and Boards and senior managers that are fighting for survival will lose patience with us.

It’s not enough any more to just be the people with a good turn of phrase.  It’s not enough to be the good storytellers, or the people who know how the news media work. We need to bring something else to the table.

Perhaps that something else will be our understanding of the changing world, and an unmatched knowledge base about what’s happening outside of our organisations.

Perhaps that something else will be data and evidence about the people our organisations are trying to move.

Perhaps that something else will be our grounding in the science changing human behaviour.

Perhaps that something else will be our working knowledge of best practice and case history.

Whatever it is – we must bring something more than just our opinions and our native wit to the table.

None of this is easy. But we can do it.

A few weeks ago PRINZ asked me to provide a quote, something that had changed my mindset at some point in my life.  I studied English literature, so I thought at first, surely some Hopkins or Yeats, that would be impressive and inspiring.  But in the end, I went with Yoda.

Imagine the scene, from the Empire Strikes Back, the brilliant second – or fifth, depending on how you’re counting – of the Star Wars movies. Yoda and Luke Skywalker are in a swamp, and Luke’s fighter is slowly sinking into the slime.  Luke believes all is lost, he’s in despair.  He’s like a communications person who’s been asked for the fifth time that week to produce a brochure.

But Yoda tells him he can do it, if he uses the force.  Luke’s skeptical, not surprisingly, and doesn’t bother to hide it.  But Yoda is insistent, so Luke says, I’ll give it a try.

Yoda: always with you, that which cannot be done. Do not try. Do. Or do not.  There is no try.

Yes, it’s hard to lift your fighter out of the swamp with nothing but your mind. But the minute you say “I’ll try” – you’re also saying “I might not succeed”, which is the surest path to failure.

Yoda represents the idea that the ability to overcome obstacles lies within us.  We can look to external support, or lay external blame, all we like.  But in the end we will succeed or fail on the basis of our own efforts.

We’re communications people. Our roles are genuinely hard.  As hard, you might say, as lifting a fighter out of a swamp using nothing but your mind.

The rapidly changing world, the fear and conflict and mistrust, the challenges that are external to us, and perhaps especially the resistance of our own organisations to our input can all be seen as reasons why we will fail.

We can despair.  Or we can use these changes and challenges, and channel them to help us succeed.

Now is our time.  The world is changing rapidly, and the resistance to that change is accelerating.

We can be the change makers.

We can be the progressive voices, helping our organisations confront, and understand and meet the great changes of the world.  But we must do it deliberately, purposefully, and with the intention to succeed by bringing data, knowledge, and best practice to the table, every time.

This conference is all about change and over two days, an amazing collection of speakers will offer their reflections on different aspects of change.

Through every session I encourage you to reflect and learn – what is the change you want to see – in yourself, in your organisation, and in the world – and what is your role in creating that change?

Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui.

May the force be with you.



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