OP-ED: Relevance, perspective clarify stories

Today's highly cluttered business and media environment leaves limited opportunities to be heard, understood, and talked about. Worse, many organizations and communicators address this clutter by adding to it.

Today's highly cluttered business and media environment leaves limited opportunities to be heard, understood, and talked about. Worse, many organizations and communicators address this clutter by adding to it.

Those trying to "break through" and gain clarity for their brands, products, and services must first achieve consensus internally on exactly what their "story" is - the what, where, how, and why of a business at any given time. Communicators should always be working to create a clear lens through which each constituency can view and comprehend the organization.

As commentary and information fill the pipeline, ultimately hardening into viewpoints or opinions about the business, controlling that pipeline makes it easier to change or strengthen, even forestall or modify, an opinion before it's fully formed.

That requires greater clarity of your story through the combination of relevance and perspective - two critical traits communicators must reassess and apply in today's changing marketplace.

  • Relevance

    Relevance means making sure the message, medium, and audience are in sync. Relevance makes clear the why - that whatever you're presenting has meaning to the audience. We must focus on how the business needs to respond: what the business, managers, and leaders need to do. Communications must seek ways to "grease the skids," not merely recite messages and add tasks.

    It must be a philosophy within the organization, rooted in management and tied to the business strategy, about relationships that let people do the right things.

    It means maintaining current understanding of and appreciation for many audiences by monitoring attitudes and behaviors in response to changing circumstances. This requires a commitment of time and work to assure up-to-date reading of our constituents' worlds: what they read and talk about, their opinions regarding the latest challenge or opportunity, and what they think about the external world and its impact on the company. A key to relevance is being able to answer such questions.

  • Perspective

    Perspective requires that we "walk in another person's shoes," seeing and interpreting the world as he does. We reach people in ways that allow for an open exchange, leading to knowledge and trust.

    Perspective implies an understanding of our audiences' perspective: what employees think and see; how they view their jobs, the company, the competition, and customers; staffers' unique challenges; and the filters they listen through and the lenses they see through.

    Second, broaden the perspective of those very audiences on the issues, challenges, and opportunities that confront them, and give them reason to care, tearing down the walls of misperception that imprison them.

    Perspective requires looking at issues from both wide and narrow angles, allowing people to see the "forest from the trees" and the "trees from the forest." This requires awareness, curiosity, and understanding of why people make the decisions they do and of the systems they employ to help make them. It's not enough to be on the end of the decision process because communication is about discussion and debate, not dissemination.

    A communicator's role is to shape and tell the story; to bring clarity to discussions, no matter the issue; to deal in facts, truth, and understanding; and to drive a dialogue, both cross-functionally, and between and among managers and staff, on every issue, challenge, and opportunity.

  • Gaining perspective from new ideas

    We maximize our roles by bringing perspective to the organization, welcoming new ideas that might even come from unexpected places. New ideas and insights should be welcomed, not rejected. Opinions and insights from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences bring with them new perspectives.

    We must become lifelong learners, ready to let go of our preconceived notions. Perspective comes from many sources, including books, conversations, novels, friends and coworkers, newspapers and magazines, song lyrics, movies, and from pushing our own personal envelopes.

    Perspective also comes from learning from the mistakes associated with risk taking. Do we understand the potential upside of the risks we take - the success we strive for, the new insights they give us, even if we fail?

    Ours is an interesting profession. We get to view our organizations and the world from the highest perch - as well as from the deepest depths. As such, we realign our thinking, our self-image, and how we approach our responsibilities. We take risks, try new experiences, venture into the unknown, and constantly learn from our experiences.

    Starting now, our assignment is to take responsibility for building and sustaining relationships with current and new stakeholders. To do so successfully, we must factor relevance and perspective into the dialogue and the decision-making process.

  • Gary Grates is VP of corporate communications, North America, for General Motors Corp.

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