Saturday, 17 November 2012

Archivists: you are not toxic!

It takes guts to present on communication and charisma but Marie Owens, ARA Head of Public Affairs did just that and it was jolly interesting. The basics of communication are pretty basic: think through what your message is; appeal to people's interests; don't sound boring; be clear etc.etc. Moira raised some interesting points, such as that the Queen is one of the best communicators around (how good is her public persona?!) and yet she never actually speaks in public other than to say 'Hello...that's did you do that...' Communication is a lot more than words, it also depends on the message, the audience and the atmosphere.

When it comes to communication and advertising, the audience will be selfish and want to know what they can get for themselves.  (Harsh, but true).  Marie also commented that we should assume low levels of knowledge when advertising or communicating information about archives.  I always forget that not everyone has used or knows what an archive is (to be discussed below).

The Essentials of good communication:
  • thought through (and preferably written down)
  • clear call to action
  • consistency in brand (not as in logos but consistency through the ranks of the institution)

The Desirables of good communication:
  • more than one medium of communication
  • memorable words or pictures
  • charismatic communicators
  • receptive audience
  • favourable news day

Is advocacy different?

The term 'advocacy' is bandied about fairly freely nowadays but I never really questioned what it meant.  From advocare, to call,  it really sits on top of communication.  Once you have set up the channels of communication you can work on advocacy.  It is a programme of work based on great communication that will, ultimately, change people's minds.

Communicative heads at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery

Why don't archivists communicate well?

A wise member of the audience asked why archivists are not good at communication.  Archivists used to be collection-centered and, as John Chambers, Chief Exec of ARA, says, 'loving a bit of vellum'.  Librarians and curators are more front of house and more visible to the public with the result that their jobs, or at least their services, are slightly better understood than archivists'.  I did disagree with the comment that libraries are all about 'stamp, stamp, shush, shush' but I do get the point that, in general, people are more familiar with libraries.  Many folk don't even know what an archive is never mind why it should be funded and what it could do for them.  Archivists are not politicians or bankers, we have done nothing to make people dislike us; we are not, as Marie put it, toxic.  It is not that we are unpopular, it is just that people don't understand what we do.  I do see how people's eyes light up when I explain what the NT Archive does or when I tell friends what programmes or digitisation projects I can get involved in so it really is just a matter of converting.  People care so deeply about the culture, heritage and history of our country and we can provide them with the means to safeguard it.

Something that I had never considered:

Archivists demonstrate their use and pursuit of the truth through events in the news such as the recent Hillsbrough Disaster revelations and the Jimmy Savile enquiry.  If our funding gets cut much more, we won't be able to bring the truth to the surface - we need to capitalise on these opportunities to tell people about the skills of our sector and to campaign for continued transparency of record keeping.

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