How well does your organisation talk to Mrs Duffy?

Now that the elections are over we can look in more detail at one of the most controversial events of the campaign, for the lessons it might teach us about how to communicate with people who are concerned about unfairness. I refer of course to Gordon Brown’s conversation with Mrs Duffy in Rochdale, and the events that followed.

Much attention has been focused on the Prime Ministerial faux pas involving the Sky TV microphone. However far more interesting is the conversation itself and the immediate reaction.

Mrs Duffy raised a number of concerns relating to the level of the national debt and her fears that her relatives would find it more difficult to access good education than she had. Gordon Brown did listen intently and, as a politician, gave her the facts about what was being done. Mrs Duffy expressed her feeling that she was often not allowed to say what she really thought and, when allowed to continue on these lines, mentioned levels of immigration.

Anyone watching could see that her reference to it was made in a similar spirit to a person saying that bad weather had prevented them from doing something. It was almost an automatic turn of phrase, rather than any unreasonable rant against specific individuals. However, as subsequent events showed, this reference was clearly picked up by the Prime Minister as the key issue from the encounter, when it was not the biggest issue for Mrs Duffy.

During the filmed media interview with Mrs Duffy immediately after Gordon Brown left, she focuses on debt and education, not immigration. Indeed, even though she and he had disagreed, she said she felt she had been listened to and was still intent on supporting the Prime Minister’s party in the elections.

A short while later, when the recording was played back to her, she was then asked for her reaction and replied that what she was most angry about was not being called a bigot, but being called “that woman”. For her, the issue was not about her specific views but the fact that she had been belittled as a human being.

Why is all this important?

Organisations are always happy to give people like Mrs Duffy “the facts”. But what she and many, many others want, first and foremost, is to be listened to and treated like a human being.

The danger of the Mrs Duffy episode is that it will be used as an example of how one should manage communication in terms of avoiding some technical mistake with a microphone, when the real lesson is about how one actually talks to Mrs Duffy and engages in an ongoing conversation with her.

From TCC research into the values and attitudes of people in low cohesion communities, references to immigration are often used as a shorthand for a wider sense of unfair treatment. Focusing on immigration is a way of making sense of a more complex world and the impact of globalisation. We also increasingly believe that it is this shorthand language within such communities that enables people to identify others who hold similar values and might have similar perceptions of unfairness around how they sometimes feel they are treated. In vulnerable communities, identifying people who share similar values makes a lot of sense in a world where external forces are likely to be seen as threatening.

Too often, organisations speak a completely different language built only around facts and rationality rather than warmth and emotion. Moreover, they often use a communications medium that does not connect with people like Mrs Duffy. We know from our work that a comment in a press release from a politician or a senior officer in an organisation is, on its own, no substitute for an empathetic conversation with a well trained and known member of a frontline service, or a conversation with a trusted local person in Mrs Duffy’s own community.

Politicians and public bodies are now debating the need to address the failure to debate immigration issues openly. This is a good thing to do in order to show people like Mrs Duffy that they are seriously being listened to. Class is an important issue here, potentially setting those who can afford to use the services of cheap migrant labour, and do so to save money, against those who feel a sense of fear and unfairness having seen their wages held down through competition with cheaper migrant labour.

Though acknowledging this is a great step forward, there is more. From our primary research and from studying a wide range of indicators of cohesion – some demographic and some political – even some relatively affluent areas indicate similar views regarding unfairness. A detailed socio-economic analysis of communities clearly provides yet more facts, when what is needed in addition is an understanding of values – understanding the why as well as the how of people’s behaviour. Only by understanding values can organisations communicate the warmth and empathy that Mrs Duffy was clearly and rightly expecting when she went out for a loaf of bread and had her unexpected but fateful encounter with a Prime Minister.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company


  • If I had a buck for every time I came here.. Incredible article.

  • Richard says:

    I arrived here via Labour List and am very pleased I found you. At last an organisation which shares the approach to community issues I’ve been endeavouring to establish on my own patch.

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