In these censorious times it’s easy to be cowed. All kinds of organisations have navigated the communications landscape with good intent only to veer off course in the face of critical backlash.
The Advertising Standards Authority came under fire when it applied the new rules on gender bias. After receiving some public complaints, it banned adverts for Philadelphia cream cheese and one for Volkswagen, ruling that both perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes: incompetent dads and passive women. The watchdog was branded the "morality police".
A Home Office #knifefree chicken box campaign featuring warnings about carrying knives on takeaway boxes also drew criticism from many quarters, being branded as "crude" and "offensive" in its deeply flawed approach that reinforced racial stereotypes.
The original campaign idea came with good intent. After a fatal stabbing outside Morley’s chicken shop in Bellingham, south London, the company’s managing director wanted to get positive messages directly into the hands of young people in the community. But the approach was reductive.
The campaign sparked a response from the youth culture agency Word on the Curb. It recognised an opportunity to harness the conversation. Canvassing young people for their practical solutions to knife crime, they filled chicken boxes with their responses and delivered them to the Home Office. It was a great example of plugged-in, authentic communication and a powerful way to carry the voice of young people directly to decision-makers.
When ideas go awry, what lessons can be learnt? Stay close to your audience, listen carefully to the conversation and build an understanding of the cultural and social context. Most importantly, root everything you do in the lived experience of the people you are trying to empower.
Adeela Warley is chief executive of CharityComms