Opinion: When it comes to comms, less is usually more

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner, but writes in a personal capacity

The communications industry has done a fantastic job on its own reputation. The centrality of communications to all forms of business practice is now seen as a given.

However, it is perhaps wise to stop and contemplate that the best-selling book at Christmas was Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title alone shows how easy it is to convey a completely different meaning from the one you intended.

Another risk is that 'comms' will (or has) become a buzzword, something which takes on its own existence. This is as dangerous as not investing in 'comms' at all.

The signs are there already. The growth in the range of communications tools can lead to the assumption that to use these things is, per se, to communicate. We all know the adverse effects of spam emails. Companies send them out in an effort to communicate with new audiences but the more they send, the less likely we are to read them.

Voluntary organisations are no different to any others when it comes to communications overload. If anything, they are more vulnerable because public trust is crucial to their success. Scepticism about how corporates go about their business has a knock-on effect, leading to growing demands for openness. In an attempt to meet this need for transparency, some organisations believe bulk is best.

As Cambridge philosopher Onora O'Neill said recently: "The way in which transparency is now implemented, where institutions flood the websites with documents, is of course overwhelming for the ordinary citizen, who can't begin to follow, read, comprehend, let alone respond to it."

Putting lengthy documents on websites may appear transparent, but who has time to read them? You have to distil the essence of what you want to say if you really want to communicate well. Trustees often mistakenly think that if they ask for more documentation they will learn more. In fact, it is more likely issues will become more confused. What people need is the right information to inform their thinking, not something you have to plough your way through to find the main points.

Transparency is about clear messages which, if communicated electronically, can be used intelligently and flexibly. The medium is not the message!

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