How to communicate effectively with a conspiracy theorist (or why you should use empathy in your communications)

JFK or JR Ewing? Whichever J you prefer, Dallas, assassins and controversial circumstances bind them together. My colleague at TCC (Charlie) forwarded the latest Gallup poll which shows that well over half of Americans (61%) today think that JFK’s demise was part of a wider conspiracy. There is no poll on JR. 

Everyone from the CIA and Russians to the Cubans and the Mob have been fingered as part of a plot to eliminate the 35th US President. If you are the US Government or the CIA or the Mob how do you defend yourself in the face of conspiracy theorists? 

There is a big problem, any evidence that you submit for analysis is not trusted. You are, in the mind of your accuser, capable of subterfuge and conspiracy. Each time you restate your case or present new evidence you are ‘up to your old tricks again’ – aren’t you? 

A rather tenuous link but there is similarity to local authorities who are trying their best to deal with ‘the cuts’ (not quite as remarkable as JFKs assassination but will be talked about for just about as long). A recent TCC poll indicated that 27% of people blamed the coalition government for the cuts, 19% the previous Labour Government and 12% the local council – 31% blamed them all equally. What is real is that people feel hard done by, as councils communicate the bad news day in and day out. 

To avoid conspiracy theories councils need to be open to what people are saying, that means understanding the narratives that surround the issues and the values that are driving them. This insight is important if you are to get the messages right. Authorities shouldn’t respond with facts and figures or continuous reference to ‘block grants’. If people don’t trust you they don’t trust your figures. The way to take people with you is by being honest but also empathetic, reflecting the reality that people are facing.  

When people recognise you are on the same page as they are, they are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt (and less likely to put you behind a grassy knoll).

Graeme Wilson is Chief Executive of The Campaign Company. You can read more about our communications strategies here.

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