Bigger than techs. About challenges to effective communication today

Communications is nothing if not trusted. Winning trust is a tall order. A few years ago, most of us were immersed entirely in coping with the new tools and techs. While this phase is surely far from over, we are coming closer to admitting that communications is more than its tools.

Bigger than techs. About challenges to effective communication today

Communications is nothing if not trusted. Winning trust is a tall order. A few years ago, most of us were immersed entirely in coping with the new tools and techs. While this phase is surely far from over, we are coming closer to admitting that communications is more than its tools.

Communication is as old as time. Distrust and reputational crises have always haunted our trade. Today, however, distrust tends to become the biggest challenge to corporate communications.

How communication today is different from what it was yesterday? We are overwhelmed—this is how. We are overwhelmed with the avalanche of information, which is both confusing, intimidating and distracting. It does not necessarily mean, however, that there is more stuff happening in the world. The world is just much more transparent. The information is just much faster. There are just much more—much more—voices around. We just know more or at least we are offered much more information, both true and false.

The next thing we know is that our mental protection mechanism makes us sceptic or simply raises the walls of disbelief. Being overwhelmed is no joke because overexposure can cause damage to the human psyche, and it causes serious problems to corporate communications.

We still need words

While achieving one’s goals through exchanging information, be it knowledge, views or ideas, has always been at the heart of a communication exercise, the effectiveness of communication depends on goal setting, channels and one’s reputation. Which part conceals the biggest challenge in today’s world?

The goal-setting part has not changed over time and still represents knowing or choosing one’s message, segmenting one’s audience, adjusting the message to each segment, getting attention and reaching out through the noise. This is the strategic essence, the core, the body of the process, the reason why we are stepping into the maze of the communication process. It includes the content and all the creative and managerial skills we need to turn the concepts into the interchangeable currency of words and strategise our way towards the exit out of the maze.

In fact, this part is much more than this, if we think of the two-way, or symmetrical, communication. And according to a school of authors, represented by James E. Grunig and his excellence theory in public relations, symmetry is the level that each modern organisation should have in mind when reaching out to its stakeholders. In short, we don’t broadcast with our ears propped; we build a dialogue with our publics.

However challenging, nothing in the strategic part of the communications seems obsolete or particularly new. The excellence theory, for instance, has been around since the mid-1980s, a good decade before the technological revolution started disrupting most of what we used to know about exchanging information. No technological shift, though, reduces the need for a solid, carefully thought-out strategy and good old copywrite. We people still need words and human speech.

Choosing the right channel and techniques complements the goal setting. It is about how freely the messages travel between the involved parties, whether we have access to the shortest and smoothest, the most technologically up-to-date channels, and whether we have enough expertise to benefit from these channels.

The universal access to the new tech has made cutting through the noise and getting noticed, let alone attention, a major challenge, and delivering the message requires increasingly creative use of technical tools. This part of the process has been rapidly advancing in recent years and, indeed, urges to keep up one’s knowledge and skills necessary to get the most out of the latest innovations. After all, one needs to invest both time and financial resources in either developing their own skills or acquiring skilled personnel to manage the tools. The bottom line here is that the strategy and the techs can be fixed.

Fixing the trust

…is not possible. Reputation is the most vulnerable and unrepairable component of communication. It can only be grown and nurtured. The effect of the technological advancement on safeguarding an organisation’s reputation dwarfs the concerns about the strategy and tools.

It feels counterintuitive, but the speed of data exchange, access to smart tools, transparency as a universally accepted standard in all walks of government and corporate realms seem to be contributing to the erosion of the public trust in institutions. According to Eurobarometer, in 2018, only 19% of EU citizens had confidence in the media, and 39% had little to no trust. And when we say “media”, make no mistake, it applies to all forms of organised information, also to corporate communications.

We protect ourselves against the abundance of information. It keeps flooding everyone’s small individual space, and we very often struggle to get it verified. Switching to scepticism, or critical thinking, serves as a smart protective strategy for a consumer of information. Often, however, critical thinking is outpowered and trampled down by simple distrust as the primary assumption that a business or government agent is per se untrustworthy.

According to the European Communications Monitor 2019, building and maintaining trust is now the most critical issue for corporate communications management, and only 27% of the communications professionals believe that ordinary people trust corporate communications.

European Communication Monitor 2019 from Communication Monitor

A tall order

Distrust inflicts costs and a lot of efforts. It becomes awkward when an organisation needs to fix something that is not broken—that is, if the distrust is, indeed, is only based on the assumption that no one is perfect. A code of ethics both arms an organisation with a shield against unfounded distrust and draws a map towards more consistency in behaviour and communications practices.

One might ask what business doesn’t have a code of ethics and a corporate social responsibility policy nowadays. It is a standard and norm. And yet distrust is still there. Are good intentions not enough? In their article Creating Shared Value. How to Reinvent Capitalism—And Unleash a Wave of Innovation published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer suggested that the traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) mindset no longer covers what really matters these days and that the societal issues are abandoned at the periphery of this approach. The old CSR does little to divert value creation in business from optimising short-term financial performance at the expense of customer needs or to stop the plunder of natural resources.

To “reinvent capitalism”, Porter and Kramer came up with an idea of creating shared values. The values are co-created and shared with all those many groups of stakeholders that each organisation has. While this should mark a clear watershed with the old mindset of “buying” society’s benevolence through the redistribution of profit and with good intentions wrapped in social responsibility and sustainability, the concept of creating shared values is “a new way of achieving economic success” and “the next major transformation of business thinking”.

In short, creating shared values is about reconnecting corporate success with social progress. For instance, addressing wasted energy, costly accidents, the need for remedial training does not necessarily raise costs as firms can innovate through using new techs and operating methods. Instead of giving farmers in poor countries higher prices for the same crop, one can help improve crop growing techniques. Food companies concentrate on better nutrition instead of taste and consumption; IT industry leaders focus on helping utilities harness digital intelligence to save power; banks help customers to plan and manage credit and pay down debts. One doesn’t give money away, one shares expertise.

Well, it might feel like a tall order. But clearly, communications is not the sole owner of this domain. This is a task for the entire organisation. As its reputation as well as building a dialogue with the stakeholders should be. We are talking about creating and sharing values, which means that the organisation, its personnel, middle- and top-level management need to be deeply involved in the co-creation—co-own the co-creation. The organisation does it both for the sake of staying relevant to its stakeholders and for its own sake. Corporate communications receives, in this context, a unique privilege to initiate, design and drive this process of creating shared values. And the order gets taller by the minute.

Comms is bigger

Back in the years when Porter and Kramer were talking about departing from the obsolete CSR mindset to creating shared values or Iwata and his co-authors at the Arthur W. Page Society were designing a new model of corporate communications to embrace the new economic and societal urges, the communications professionals—at least us here in Europe, according to the European Communication Monitor—were mostly worrying about “coping with the digital evolution and the social web”. The techs surely looked menacing.

Today this is a No. 5 concern, giving way to the very related subjects of dealing with the speed and volume of information flow (No. 2) and exploring new ways of creating and distributing content (No. 3), as well as the immortal complaint about resources (not) matching with the need to address ever-expanding audiences (No. 4). Building and maintaining trust has been on the top of the ranking for two years now.

While the new tools and techniques require investments and organisational adjustments, creating shared values demands a massive shift in professional mentality. One might object that the big words like “reinventing capitalism” or “co-creating values” have very little to do with the everyday necessity to compete for rankings in Google search results, push up the conversion rate, and keep building customer email lists.

That’s correct—of the top 5 challenges I quoted from the survey, only the top one is not about techs and tools and has a vague taste of frustration, because one, indeed, cannot fix the trust at 9 a.m. on a Monday by applying a new tool. Honestly, it also feels like most of us in the profession have finally moved past a persistent denial and acknowledged that communications is more than its tools.

If building strategies and using techs give us some structure, distrust is disrupting it. Frustration in the face of disruption, ahead of a journey, in fact, a steep learning curve, is absolutely normal. One just needs to remember that every journey begins with the first step and that we need a vision of where we are heading. And there are chances that the “big words” suggested by academic thinkers might guide us to our goal.

Publications used in creating this article:

Zerfass, A. et al. (2019): European Communication Monitor 2019. Exploring Trust in the Profession, Transparency, Artificial Intelligence And New Content Strategies. Results of a Survey in 46 Countries. Brussels: EACD/EUPRERA.

Porter, M. & Kramer, M. (2011): Creating Shared Value. How to Reinvent Capitalism—And Unleash a Wave of Innovation. Harvard Business Review 88 (1), p. 62–77.

Iwata, J. et al. (2016): The New CCO. Transforming Enterprises in a Changing World. New York, NY: Arthur W. Page Society.

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