What has always worked doesn’t always work

In the leadup to the Australian Federal election 2019, the two candidates for Prime Minister faced live television to convince Australians of their relative merits and the other’s weakness in a lukewarm and bland televised debate. Putting aside the awkwardness of the debate and the widespread well-deserved criticism of the actual event, it has lead to an interesting side conversation (exemplified by this post on The Conversation) – why are we still doing this?

The political and social landscape of Australia is vastly different now to when the first televised debate was introduced in the 1980s. Social and digital media dominate as influencing how people make up their minds on issues, or indeed how many people actually find out information in the first place. Just over 600,000 people watched the debate, which is actually an increase from the 415,000 who watched the first debate in the 2016 election, also between Morrison and Shorten. Although televised debates still have a major role to play in some countries (America being a notable example, with the Clinton/Trump debate watched by 84 million viewers in 2016!), they clearly are not as relevant in the contemporary Australia.

And here in lies the point I want to make.

Just because something has worked in the past, or in one context, doesn’t mean it will always work in every context.

As a communications professional, this is critical. We need to be constantly watching what we are doing, checking results and adjusting our approach.

For example, video posts are often touted as the way to engage with audiences. However, in countries with limited internet bandwidth, such as across the Pacific, video posts take up precious MB that literally translate into money out of a viewer’s pocket. Viewers are not watching a 10 second video of a cat, no matter how cute it is, if it’s going to indirectly cost them $2 every single time! So for these audiences, a different type of post is going to work far better – lower bandwidth photos, perhaps some simple text or an interesting graphic.

Similarly, when non-profits like World Vision and Save the Children realised that the long-standing use of starving and desperate children in emotive advertising appeals was in fact deterring potential supporters, they quickly changed to a more positive form of appeal.

As these examples show, at best, using the wrong approach means wasted effort and time, something none of us have in abundance. At worst, it can actually turn off supporters, make them un-follow our social media or direct their limited charitable contributions elsewhere.

Despite these risks, obviously, using what has worked in the past can often be a solid technique. There was after all a reason it worked, and often those reasons don’t change quickly enough that a strategy needs to be changed every time. It is also generally the quickest and easiest way to get something done, people are familiar with it so it is often quicker to get approvals, and there can often be cost benefits to reusing old approaches or relationships.

For communications professionals, the biggest lesson from the Awkward Debate is this – before committing to a course of action, we need to pause, take stock, think about our objectives and tools, and critically assess our past approaches and results, and make a decision about how to proceed with all of this in mind. Not just thinking about what always used to work.

So when thinking about to approach your next communications opportunity, take a moment to consider – are you planning an activity just because it worked last time or somewhere else? Or are you planning it because it is the best way to share your message and suited to the audience?

Not sure how to change your communications from what always worked to what works now? Get in touch!

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