Listening only to those who shout loudest has proved disastrous for governments in recent months. Failing to tap into what the majority thinks, but doesn’t always say, can also fail to get the desired results for internal communicators.
By Suzanne Peck
Failing to appreciate, or at least underestimating, the prevailing view among the majority of your audience can be world-changing. Just look at the Brexit referendum and the American election.
OK, so repeating the mistake as an internal communicator might not have the same geopolitical impact, but it could come back to bite you when you need it most. So none of us can afford to ignore the ‘silent majority’.
It’s a term Donald Trump used in just about every speech he made during the presidential campaign, usually to press home his claim that most Americans felt forgotten by their government and politicians.
But who is this silent majority? And how do we know what they’re thinking if they’re…well… silent? The media says it’s the people who just get on with their lives, who are quiet, and not natural activists. One ‘silent majority’ interviewee in the US said: “We expect a dollar work for a dollar pay. We don’t want anything free, but we don’t want stuff taken away from us either. And that’s happening to us out here in the cheap seats.”
The power of silent majority isn’t new, of course. Although Trump brought the idea to the forefront during his election campaign, it was also a concept used by Richard Nixon, notably in a November 1969 speech defending the Vietnam War.
“And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans,” he said, “I ask for your support.” He was appealing directly to those Americans who did not join the large demonstrations against the war, who did not “turn on, tune in and drop out” of the counterculture, as Timothy Leary put it, and to the middle Americans who simply weren’t taking part in the debate. Nixon, along with many others, saw this group as being overshadowed in the media by the more vocal minority.
“The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind,” said Nixon. “It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when things seem to be changing, when all that’s solid melts into air.”
More than 40 years later, that feeling of dispossession took control as Americans who felt overlooked by the establishment and left behind by the so-called ‘coastal elite’ made their voices heard. And when Britain’s people rebelled despite economic and business bodies, foreign leaders, and a clutch of assorted celebrities telling them otherwise.
Both cases represent a disconnect between the people who govern the nations and the governed. Those in power were powerless to stop a new-found sense of populist empowerment, and the silent majority had their say.
As internal communicators, it’s our role to connect everyone within our organisations. Filtering what we listen to, who we listen to, and when we listen to them is increasingly difficult in today’s multi-media, multi-channel, ‘always on’ environment. But not doing so, overlooking the silent majority, has only one outcome: if we fail to prepare, we must prepare to fail.
I can’t be alone in noticing how the people that are the loudest always seem to be the negative people, the complainers? We all know them, the ones who can find the negative in any plan, who shout ‘everyone’s saying’, who tend to shut down meetings and are quick to point out problems, issues, and complaints, but don’t always offer a solution?
MORE TIMES THAN NOT, HOWEVER, THIS SILENT MAJORITY HASN’T HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK, BECAUSE ONCE THE LOUD FEW STARTED TALKING, THE CONVERSATION ENDED BEFORE IT EVER HAD A CHANCE TO BEGIN.”
And often, these voices are the ones that we listen to: because of them we we change or abandon plans and ideas. We make the mistake of believing that, because they are the loudest, that must be what the majority think too.
More times than not, however, this silent majority hasn’t had the chance to speak, because once the loud few started talking, the conversation ended before it ever had a chance to begin.
As communicators, we should have our spidey-senses on standby and, while hearing what the shouters are saying, treat what they say with caution and don’t assume that they represent the majority. We must also seek out those who are quieter, proactively asking for their views, making them advocates and ensuring that they have a voice. These are people who often have the best solutions after all, and offer sound advice. Those who are quick to speak often get the most attention, and their words sometimes fall short when it comes to offering any real value to the conversation.
I’m not saying we should ignore the loudest people – their views are valid – but weeding out the value in what they say is useful.
We need to ask them what they suggest, what they would do about the issue. We need to move the conversation from negative to productive, help them make the connection between what the change or the plan may mean to them. Is it fear of change, is it personal resistance?
We could get the loud voices involved with a defined role – making people feel included and involved helps. But sometimes it just doesn’t work. Leopards/spots, dogs/tricks, etc. But as Hillary Clinton said during the election: “They go low; we go high.” Balancing the loud voices with the majority views that you’ve sought out gives you the knowledge, the facts and the high ground.
I’m not suggesting that you go and talk to everyone in the organisation. Just try to find other ways such as regular pulse surveys, informal brown bag lunches, or focus groups in which you can actively encourage everyone to participate. And ask people who you know have good ideas, and who you trust.
Face to face is definitely better than ‘social’, too. Social listening is seen by many internal communicators as the answer to their dreams – the big thing for reaching and understanding audiences. And it is a powerful way to gain more insight from both inside and outside the organisation. The drawback, however, is context.
When Hollywood studio Columbia was releasing the Angelina Jolie movie Salt, they decided to gauge interest in the film based on the number of people mentioning it on social media. When they saw a surge in mentions, they got excited. Later, though, they found out that Justin Bieber had just announced his tour dates in Salt Lake City, which had sent the number of ‘salt’ mentions soaring.
Only 10 per cent of people actively engage on social media, and they tend to be those with an opinion – the loudest voices. Salt in the wound indeed?