November 9, 2016 Andy Green

Trump victory – when are we going to wake up to the social capital crisis in our societies?


Trump’s win is the latest consequence of our social capital crisis. Following on from the Brexit vote we have yet another example of the consequences of living in divided communities.

How many working class people do you know? Did half the people you know vote Brexit?

The US Presidential election and the UK’s referendum result revealed a disturbing reality of two tribes within modern Western societies ­– and what’s worse, they’re increasingly having less to do with each other.

It is all part of a hidden crisis within our societies – the decline of social capital – and it was a key factor in the recent election results.

This hidden social capital crisis affects the very heartbeat of how our communities work. Fewer people devote themselves to the communal good, and fewer of us are getting involved in doing things, running things or just hanging around with each other – how we help each other to help each other – reducing our capacity to connect, co-operate and collaborate.

As a result, things we took for granted in our communities start to happen less and less, or not at all, and people are increasingly operating within distinct silos of like-minded people – and we are all poorer as a result.

There are fewer opportunities for dialogue between people; chances to create alternative perspectives outside your own tribe’s bubble of a worldview.

There are fewer opportunities to become a trusted source, someone who could be listened to, whose advice and information is not dismissed as being part of a conspiracy theory.

There are fewer opportunities to be front-of-mind, being able to influence just by the recency of your contact.

There are fewer opportunities to be at least liked by another person, so that you avoid simplistic labels and stereotypes of other people, even if you hold a contrary view.

Social capital is not just a nice thing to have; it’s critical to how well we live and work together, and public relations people are in the driving seat to do something about its decline.

PR people need to start recognising the existence of social capital – the space to connect that can range from building online and offline communities, to simple opportunities to be in the same place together.

We need to respect that building social capital is one of the five core pillars of public relations activity, alongside listening, counselling on the authenticity of your brand’s actions, managing your story and earning trust.

We need to include in our work recognition that communications and creating change requires managing the gaps within stakeholders as much as the messages to them.

We need to recognise that public relations work is about investing in the bonding capital that holds a group together, its bridging capital of how it connects with other like-minded people outside of its home group, and its linking capital for connecting with others – even if they are not like you, or may even be opposed to you.

I define social capital as ‘How we help each other to help each other’ – the capacity within our communities to connect, co-operate and collaborate.

Vibrant communities have strong bonding social capital – the glue to hold a group together. Thriving communities have strong bridging social capital to connect people better with like-minded others. Creative communities have strong linking social capital bringing dissimilar people together.

The guru of social capital, Robert Putnam, identified in his seminal book ‘Bowling Alone’ how bowling alley attendance in the United States has risen, yet bowling alley leagues have dramatically declined – hence we’re increasingly ‘bowling alone’ – a decline mirrored in every aspect of communal and civic life.

I came across the concept of ‘social capital’, and realised its significance, through a community project I ran in my hometown, the ‘Barry IdeasBank’. It started off as an idea of an online repository, a place to share good ideas about where you live.

I discovered that an idea by itself is just an idle thought: you need people to make ideas happen. And these people need other people to realise the potential of their idea and to make it happen – they need strong social capital – offline more than online.

A Barry equivalent of Putnam’s bowling metaphor would be the pub game of skittles, played in skittle alleys. Over the last 20 years half the skittle alleys in Barry have closed. Yes, this reflects changing social habits, the decline in numbers of local pubs, and also the changing nature of employment, evoked by the names of many of the alleys that have closed such as the ‘Dockers’ and ‘Railwaymen’. Yet the people who used to play skittles have not replaced this activity with another that nudges them to get out of their homes more, mix with people they may not normally have social contact with, or come together to work towards a common goal. As a result we have a social capital deficit.

In Barry we would have the equivalent book title of ‘Skittling No More’, where the core assets for social capital, the hubs for communal activity, are being destroyed or significantly diminished – whether it is a skittle alley closing, declining local newspaper circulations, the local record shop or other community retail closing, or fewer milk deliveries – anything where we help each other to help each other.

This is not about restoring or trying to keep alive what may be commercially or socially unviable or unsustainable, but rather recognising the social capital consequences of these trends. We need to invest and create new activities to offset the deficit.

Imagine in the run-up to an election you are in a team or group event with people you don’t normally mix with, and the subject of ‘How are you going to vote?’ came up – you are more likely to hear and respond to a far wider range of views than those from your bubble of friends, family and social media contacts.

You would have had a richer discourse, sharing personal experiences, leveraging your mutual trust and also creating a greater sense of mutual obligation to the consequences of your actions.

Once you start wearing social capital glasses you see its symptoms everywhere in your work: greater difficulty getting volunteers or participants, more difficulty getting your message through, or failing to be believed and trusted.

Public relations people and communicators need to stand tall. The US President and Brexit votes are a wake-up call on so many fronts – showing how political elites are increasingly out of touch.

We need to create new narratives of our collective story going forward. Yet, we also need to wake up to the crisis in declining social capital in our society, and roll up our sleeves to lead the way in addressing its consequences and building new social capital for greater connection, co-operation and collaboration.

Charles Darwin observed that the species that succeed are the ones that collaborate better; we are not just bowling or skittling alone, but could be a country of two mutually alone tribes, failing to collaborate.

Are you going to start the process of reaching out more, and creating richer, more meaningful engagements? Or are you going to sit comfortably in your bubble, your silo of self-reinforcing, mutually supportive ‘Yes’ people to your worldview?

Facing up to the consequences of the US election and Brexit and working to build resilient, inclusive and successful communities in the US, UK and elsewhere could be one of PR’s finest moments. I’m rolling up my sleeves, yet I know I can’t achieve what I want by myself.

Are you going to do what you can do to tackle the social capital crisis in our societies?

If you would like free consultation for advice and guidance to find out more about how you can address managing and building social capital, then get in touch.