Thought Leader: The future of communications

Chime Communications surveyed 100 senior comms and marketing professionals on the issues that face them in the information age. The results make challenging reading, says group CEO Chris Satterthwaite.

It is hardly surprising that in the age of information, the way individuals and organisations communicate needs close attention. Businesses, governments, charities and individuals have always been the subject of conversation, but whereas before the age of information these conversations remained to a large extent discrete, they have become joined up through local, national and global networks of communication.

In this information age, communicators are feeling more vulnerable because the historical means of controlling comms are to a large extent eroded.

Chime Communications commissioned Opinion Leader Research to conduct a quantitative survey on 'The Future of Communications' with 100 senior and mid-level figures from the comms sector, supplemented by 20 in-depth interviews with senior figures from comms and marketing.

The new vulnerability

Organisations operate in a public space characterised by information overload and 'data smog'. New technologies and the advent of rolling news means that communicators now operate in a 24/7 environment.

This inevitably leads to more pressure on communicators. There are incessant demands to respond and react and less time to think, reflect and plan. Organisations suffer if comms become too tactical, or more reactive than proactive. Furthermore, the pressure on media outlets to gain ratings or increase circulation has led to the tabloidisation of business and political news. Increased choice and competition means outlets have to shout harder to gain attention.

As a result, the contemporary media emphasise simplicity over complexity and conflict over consensus. Challenging issues are covered in an overly emotive and personalised way, with outlets accentuating differences in attitudes rather than similarities in views. Indeed, 62 per cent of comms professionals say that the tabloidisation of the media is making it increasingly difficult to communicate intelligently with the public.

Communicators in business must also accept that corporate leaders are increasingly being assessed in the same unrelenting way as their political counterparts. With the advent of the 'celebrity CEO', 75 per cent of those surveyed believe CEOs are becoming more like political leaders in their need to win support and guard against threats. A further 72 per cent say it is difficult to differentiate between the reputation of the chief executive and that of the company.

Corporate leaders and communicators have to accept that CEOs need to win support from stakeholders every day. Pressure from the media, the City, NGOs and consumers means companies must constantly justify and explain their decisions, often to hostile and sceptical audiences.

People have also become sceptical of organisations' motives. Events such as the furore over the war in Iraq, financial services scandals and controversy over executive pay have all contributed to the mood of mistrust. Moreover, people are adept at deconstructing marketing and communications, with 83 per cent of survey respondents believing the public are becoming increasingly savvy in terms of spin, hype and agendas.

Communicators often forget the vital importance of employees in shaping reputation. Staff play a major role in determining the true nature of an organisation's brand and reputation, and can act as their greatest ambassadors or worst saboteurs.

However, too many organisations rely on tired mission statements and bland values. In line with scepticism expressed towards most communications, employees dismiss such initiatives as irrelevant and condescending. Communicators need to find new ways to engage with employees and involve staff more in shaping and delivering an organisation's vision.

Communicators must also realise that traditional stakeholder management techniques are becoming redundant. The changing nature of influence and communications empowers new groups and minority interests to challenge organisations.

In effect, small groups can have an inordinate influence by using the media skilfully. The fuel crisis, council tax protests and the controversy over the MMR vaccine were all begun by tiny groups adeptly handling the media. In business, fringe environmental and labour activists have damaged the reputation of major brands.

Confronted by this environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that 89 per cent of respondents agree that stakeholder relationship management is becoming more complex.

Coping in a tough environment

Although the research outlines challenges for communicators, organisations need to be able to spot issues, opportunities and threats quickly by engaging with trendsetters, conducting nimble research and identifying and tracking issues and concerns.

Eighty-four per cent of respondents believe successful organisations are those that strive for transparency and openness. The increased volatility and aggression of the media and public means transparency is essential for companies and organisations.

Organisations should also seek out opportunities to give key audiences input into the decision-making process, helping them to engage in an informed debate.

The research shows that businesses can gain ascendancy by showing leadership on corporate citizenship. Eighty-five per cent believe a competitive advantage can be gained from demonstrating vision when it comes to social contribution.

Within this context, corporate social responsibility (CSR) becomes crucial commercially, and not just morally preferable. CSR needs to be seen as an opportunity to connect, and not as an exercise in compliance. The danger at the moment is that 69 per cent say CSR has become bureaucratic and tickboxy.

In the face of media cynicism and public scepticism, organisations can only succeed by fostering and maintaining strong emotional intimacy with people. This is dependent on comms that involves and empowers people, that is not didactic and one way.

Communicators must also make listening to employees a more significant priority. This means moving beyond banal staff surveys and tickbox exercises.

To succeed and prosper in this environment of new vulnerability, communications must be united. Organisations need to ensure that various functions such as advertising, marketing, PR, communications and research work together.

If the organisation you work or act for cannot adequately meet all of these requirements, you are likely to be at the mercy of the information age rather than becoming a part of it. Consider these questions: are all communications (corporate, marketing and internal) managed through a single, unifying force - a department, a functional head, the board or the chief executive? Has the relative investment in comms disciplines changed by more than 25 per cent over the last five years?

And can you define the actual and emerging issues facing your organisation as evidence through a web or staff search? Are all your research findings published and circulated within 28 days of completion to the board? And does your chief executive take ultimate responsibility for the internal and external comms of your organisation?

People who understand the demands of the information age need to be at the heart not just of corporate communications but marketing communications as well.

62% - Say tabloidisation of the media is making intelligent communication with the public more difficult

75% - Say CEOs are becoming more like political leaders in their need to win support and guard against threats

89% - Say stakeholder relationship management is becoming more complex

84% - Say successful organisations are those that strive for transparency and openness.

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