For a more dynamic communication

Our new digital archive illustrates over 60 years ago British Safety Council promoted campaigns from the amusing to the controversial. Have we become too corporate about Health and Safety?

On 9th January, we launched our new digital archive in celebration of our 60th Anniversary.

The portal contains a wide range of documents, images and photographs, which chart the progression of health and safety management in the UK and provides an interesting commentary on social history too.

Looking through the materials, there is no doubt that our founder, James Tye, embraced publicity. He truly believed in health and safety and never shied away from an opportunity to raise awareness or make a point. He worked closely with celebrities and organised a wide range of stunts and photo opportunities to support the campaigns. Many of these were bizarre and amusing, such as taking an elephant to parliament to illustrate that we should never forget about those being injured or losing their lives at work. Some were controversial, such as featuring the Pope on a poster about safe sex, but they certainly got people talking about health and safety!

So why has the approach changed so much over the last 60 years? Health and safety communication today is generally pretty unexciting and corporate. It often focuses on consequences and adopts an instructional approach, which discourages interaction.

Safety risk has reduced significantly since James’ time, but there are still important issues to tackle, particularly in relation to health and wellbeing. So, do we need a new approach to communication in order to get more people engaged?

Modern technology and social media make it much harder to stay in control of the message today. In the 1970s and 1980s an event attended by the press might feature in the newspapers the next day, or maybe even get a mention on one of the three daily TV news bulletins. Now images are captured and shared by observers instantly and can reach a potential audience of millions within just a few seconds. Your intended message can get lost very quickly as people comment on what they have seen or heard and share their own views through social networks.

But does it matter? Is all publicity a positive thing?

Some might say that Donald Trump has embraced this concept during the presidential election process in the USA, and there’s no doubt that the world knows more about him and about his views than they did about any previous President Elect. His views frequently polarise opinion, but they do get people talking about the issues of the day. So, is it a good thing, even if doesn’t represent a truth, a balanced argument or the majority view?

We do need more dynamism in health and safety communication. Can we raise awareness, start discussions and put issues into the public eye by taking a more polarised, and possibly controversial approach? It certainly worked for James Tye, but does modern communication make it too risky for us to take this approach now?

Maybe the answer is to start small, prompting dialogue and debate about health and safety issues within organisations rather than on a national scale.

People expect a more interactive approach these days. They don’t like ‘to be told’ and prefer to engage with the argument and form their own view. A number of companies are beginning to factor this into their communication strategy and are reporting significant improvements, particularly in relation to health and wellbeing issues.

So perhaps we should all try in 2017 to be a bit more like James Tye and start some real conversations about the health and safety issues which matter most in our organisation… bring on the elephants!

Louise Ward
Policy, Standards and Communications Director | British Safety Council