Recalibrating communications via deeper and richer conversations
In case it wasn’t patently obvious, the communications playing field continues to be levelled, giving stakeholders the opportunity to initiate and drive conversations, which in turn, has driven greater corporate openness. With communications costs continuing to fall, and technological tools become ever more omnipresent (around 400 million people last year got a smartphone) the distance between businesses and external stakeholders inevitably shrinks further. Stakeholders have far greater power and reach than ever before to organise their actions; rate companies; and shine their critical lights to mass audiences.
Companies that previously demanded full control over communications now have to play by entirely different (and contradictory) rules of the game on much more transparent platforms. Press releases and reactive statements are yesterday’s mode of thin engagement. Bill Baue, Co-Founder of Sustainability Context Group, believes this Accountability 1.0 mode of one-way proclamations, campaigns and PR communications on Web 2.0 platforms is already out-dated. Instead, Accountability 2.0 requires two-way communication, cooperation, and mutual engagement with a multiplicity of stakeholders on an on-going basis. Naturally, such engagement is already happening but it will become far more interactive. Some organisations will continue to have more robust conversations with their stakeholders online, driven by the pressures of pluralism, the importance of continuous and frequent communications, and the need for information on demand.
John Friedman recently published his thoughts on trust, sustainability, PR and digital media in his book, ‘PR 2.0 How Digital Media Can Help You Build a Sustainable Brand’. He points to several trends that have come together to transform how organisations can effectively communicate with stakeholders:
- The instant information age has irrevocably changed how people want to create, share, receive, judge and interact with information.
- The focus on transparency and authenticity, driven by the emphasis on corporate responsibility, has transformed the role of business communicators from developing and disseminating messages to engaging stakeholders.
- While “public relations” is often a synonym for “media relations,” its real value is maximising how an organisation manages its relationships with its various publics.
- Digital media offer many of the same attributes that make face-to-face the most effective form of communications; including interactivity, immediacy and the ability to establish relationships despite physical distances.
- The fragmentation of media audiences, increasing scepticism of traditional corporate messages and a digital-savvy workforce and consumer base necessitate that companies take advantage of the tools are available and use them most effectively.
Picking up on the final aspect: the social media engagement tools have dynamically changed conversations forever. Whilst the notion of participatory regulation has been alive and well long before Don Tapscott’s book on MacroWikinomics, an informed and noisy crowd has significantly enhanced the concept. We see various organisations – corporates, NGOs – as well as individuals increasingly tapping into both ‘crowdsourcing’ and ‘crowdstorming’ processes. Expert commentator in this area, Matthew Yeoman, notes that, sadly, business crowdsourcing efforts to date have focussed too much on attempts to apply these means as a marketing tool: namely, adopting Web 2.0 technologies to extend existing modes of brand communication and customer engagement. Instead, the real power of crowdsourcing should come from the volume of information, ideas and opinions it opens up. In addition, just as the value of user-generated content becomes more effective when curated and packaged by professional editors, crowdsourced ideas and actions increase in effectiveness when shaped around an identifiable business goal.
What will be increasingly important will be businesses and their stakeholders finding alignment in search of solving their shared objectives. These transparent conversations of the future require corporate adaptation and a different mind-set. Lucy Parker and Jon Miller from Brunswick have reached the conclusion that within an ever burgeoning and evolving swirl of conversations, you can find the signal in the noise; that there are only a finite number of themes actually being discussed. They believe there are only eleven ‘big conversations’ about the challenges facing the world today. Underlying these conversations are the enduring drivers of change: technology, globalisation, and sustainability. What is critical is how the business world relates and contributes to these big conversations. And how they then voice a particular point of view that understands the sentiments of these publics.
Last week the ‘Social Media Sustainability Index 2015’ was published alongside an overview that pointed to the need for a ‘soft sell approach’ to communicating sustainability to the public, as well as the need for greater creativity. The report highlights a number of emerging storytelling trends and platforms including: big campaign ideas; innovation; digital literacy; native advertising; the YouTube wasteland; and storytelling on Vine, Tumblr and Pinterest. The trends indicate that companies are more active in this public space, and that they are wishing to have deeper conversations, using their audiences’ preferred social media tools, to forge more meaningful and longer lasting connections through on-going dialogue.
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, USA, commented at Davos 2015 that, “[In the future], the Internet will disappear… you won’t even sense it, it will be part of your presence all the time.” That future doesn’t appear too far from the current reality. Businesses that haven’t prepared for meaningful stakeholder engagement will suffer the greatest. Those that have understood that they need their stakeholders to buy into sustainable behaviour and talk about the issues that matter most, in the terms that the public understands and cares about, will invariably end up the winners.