As world changes, so do comms needs

At times, we really seem to be just one world.

At times, we really seem to be just one world.

Impressionistically, we are more unified, with trends widely shared, news commonly experienced, and information universally accessible.

The advance of democracy is a stabilizing force, and, broadly speaking, it has become our pervasive political system. The will of the people has been exercised in large-scale elections in more countries than any other time in history. The 21st century looks like the people's century.

Perversely, the same forces that drive unity spawn division. A world in closer touch makes us keenly aware of what separates us. Every generation has had its share of divisiveness, but now the divisions are more public and pervasive. These divisions, borne of complexity, confusion, and change, have a resonance that inevitably conditions how communicators go about their tasks.

Organizations, governments, and NGOs must speak to audiences fractured by dissent. Financial security in retirement is set to become a flash point, as the old dominate the electorate and demand more, while the young in the fastest growing parts of the world resist. We can expect increasing tension as to who owns the global agenda.

The only certainty communicators can count on is that these conflicts will continue to cut across modern societies in all directions. Everywhere, purposes cross. Free speech conflicts with stability. Intellectual property rights fight with free competition. Libertarians seek more freedom of action, while conservatives want more central control to make their total society safer. Rare is it that communicators are not asked to bridge these conflicting views.

How do professional communicators respond to the struggle for voice? The challenge is evaluating this complexity and using it to an advantage. Communicating in a divided world demands more as the newly empowered are seeking validation of their personal views and needs. Success now has a higher bar, and failure has more repercussions. At a time when the need for communications has never been stronger, the barriers to successful communication have never been higher.

So what does success look like? Consider the premise that communication is not a transaction but a relationship, with the end point serving as the starting point. We work backward to consider how communications can help make success happen in a divided world, i.e., we switch from a focus on output to a focus on outcome, which is the only real basis for judgment.

Some guidelines are:

  • Accept criticism. Don't underrespond. Don't overreact. The best outcome is to shift the view of the critics.

  • Communicate your position on issues becoming important, thus demonstrating your track record. Know and communicate your platform, as well as know and communicate with the friends and foes of that platform.

  • Create good systems for spotting nascent issues and new opponents. What will be the new points of debate? Where are the trends, and which are material to you? The ones with the keenest antennae in a divided world have the greatest opportunity to manage outcome and win.

  • Business goals should drive the communications focus. Review these relentlessly. To make you successful, there is often a single thing that you need to establish and pursue. Communications, to that end, should be run like a political campaign, where you win and lose debates and secure the outcome desired.

  • Personalize. People make statements that are credible- not companies. Trust must be a principal objective of any communication in a divided world. The collective senior leadership of the organization needs to put faces and names to statements. When communication is that accountable, people will take it more seriously.

  • Eliminate the silo approach. Don't communicate through only one channel. Communicate across a number of fronts at the same time.

  • Value always beats volume in the long run. High-value communication makes a difference in a divided world, but it should ring clear, have a resonance with the time, and have an emotional component.

    How do you win on a consistent basis? You need to be connected - to the trends, the issues, to real intelligence. PR people must be the eyes and ears of their organizations so they understand the global context. They should be connected to other parts of the organization. And these groups need to be interlinked, to understand the implications of each other's actions. Ultimately, the context for communication is as important as the communication itself.

    Bottom line: the demands of our united and divided world make evermore demands of its communication pros. Get it right, and you will be central to your organization. Outcomes, after all, have outcomes.

  • Paul Taaffe is CEO of Hill & Knowlton. This article was adapted from IPRA Gold Paper #15.

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