by Jonjo Murphy
In post-referendum, post-truth Britain, we find ourselves at many crucial impasses. The result of last June’s poll revealed an embarrassment of grievances among the British public, some of which had been thinly veiled for many years; others which seemed to emerge from deeper below the surface. Among the familiar complaints surrounding immigration, Brussels bureaucracy and a relinquishment of control over our own laws, there emerged a distinct and at times concerted attack on those who, for a long time, seemed immune from criticism: experts.
The expert has, throughout time, been viewed as an almost omnipotent figure. Particularly in the pre-internet era, the perceived lack of available information for ‘normal’ people helped to elevate the expert to a position atop the proverbial hill, looking down upon the rest of us. Those days seem, for the moment at least, to be over. Indeed, the advent of the internet and the democratising effect that it has so profoundly brought about, perhaps signalled the beginning of the end for experts far before the EU referendum, and the subsequent US election. Access to information and misinformation; facts and alternative facts; truths and half-truths at the click of a finger has always seemed a worrying phenomenon for many true experts, yet their societal status has not come under such existential pressure as it does now.
Whilst it may be simplistic to conflate Michael Gove’s comment that “people in this country have had enough of experts”- about which he was referring specifically to economists- to include all experts in all fields, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that this is, in fact, true. Be it bankers, pollsters, climate scientists or academics, a few decades worth of experience in the field or a series of letters after one’s name seem for many, to mean nothing compared to the lived experience of the individual.
In a telling exchange during the referendum campaign, the BBC’s Chris Cook interviewed a retired woman called Joan in a Bognor Regis café. After Mr Cook reeled off Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney’s seemingly ample qualifications as justification for why he may be in a reasonable position to make predictions on the UK economy following a vote for Brexit, Joan’s retort was “Yes. But does he know what it’s like to go ‘round Sainsbury’s?”
While Joan’s question may seem a flippant one, it is getting at the heart of an extremely salient issue, about the huge chasm that exists between experts and the rest of us. This is not to say that this chasm hasn’t always existed. Experts may be no more distant or disconnected from the rest of us than they always were, but in an increasingly interconnected world, we’re certainly recognising it more.
Rightly or wrongly, many experts have been slow to adapt to a world in which their actions are easier to scrutinise, and to be held accountable for. Instead of bringing themselves closer to an increasingly dubious public, experts across the board have largely maintained and even extended the virtual gap between themselves, at the top of the hill, and us at the bottom.
In a 2016 piece for The Independent, Dr Julia Shaw discussed the problem with experts. “To many people, expertise is a foreign language… When experts talk, they often fill the air with complicated words and unintelligible acronyms. Experts seem to want non-experts to rise to their level of sophistication, rather than approaching non-experts with appropriate language.” While no amount of non-expert criticism would have altered Mark Carney and the Bank’s forecast for post-Brexit Britain, and it is eminently possible that his predictions will prove to be correct, perhaps if he would have modified some of his language in the lead up to the referendum -“The global general environment has become much more febrile, much more volatile, and relying on the kindness of strangers is not optimal in that kind of environment”- and tried to strike a somewhat more convivial note, some of the Brexiteers may have been more receptive to his expert opinion.
This point is central to the expert issue, no matter the sector, and the communications industry has a vital role to play in re-connecting the public with experts, and vice versa. As an industry, we have a responsibility to provide the public with clear, authentic messages and experts can and should be a part of that.
But it is no longer enough for the industry to act as a mouthpiece for experts. With the internet and social media acting as the great levellers of society, the proverbial hill no longer exists, and experts must be seen to be speaking directly to consumers, and from the same level. A 2015 study conducted at the University of Muenster in Germany concluded that for experts to be effective they must portray three characteristics of ‘epistemic trustworthiness’: expertise, integrity and benevolence. To rebuild public confidence in experts, it is up to us as industry professionals to find the right experts, capable of portraying not only the right messages, but in the right way.
As an agency, we pride ourselves on our ability to find and build relationships with not only the most knowledgeable people in their fields, but also the people who can communicate that knowledge and expertise in the most effective way. This ethos has helped us to provide stronger, more reliable results for our clients across sustained periods of time. Whether launching a new product, raising awareness of a certain disease area or building the profile of a fledgling organisation; start by providing a platform for effective, relatable experts to have their voices heard, and the rest will surely follow.