OP-ED: Comms converging in face of constant news cycles

Communications is hurtling toward a world of convergence.

Communications is hurtling toward a world of convergence.

Don't panic. The function is not contracting or headed for extinction. On the contrary, organizations need PR more than ever. But in a world of constant and continuous news and information, traditional communication functions and roles must be rethought and revamped. We now have the opportunity to transform communications into a truly integrated function requiring all of us to have interchangeable skills and overlapping roles.

Jack Rosenthal, a former editor and reporter at The New York Times, wrote in a recent article that news cycles have all but disappeared. He noted that "in the electronic era, there's just one [cycle], instant and constant."

Think about how you and your colleagues, clients, and customers are bombarded day and night with all manner of information, from TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, e-mail, and the web. The "shrinking world" is a cliche come alive.

As the world shrinks, most organizations, particularly larger ones, continue to structure communications in traditional neat specialties, such as employee communications, media relations, investor relations, and community relations. But our target audiences are reached by an array of information sources at lightning speed. We are living in a world of convergence in which communications to one audience automatically carry over and overlap to other constituents. Our communications initiatives, regardless of intent, are collapsing on one another.

I spent a number of years working for a French life sciences company with a significant presence in the US. Any communication specifically targeted to the unions in France quickly became public, regardless of how confidential the information was supposed to be. The company had to consider all communication to the unions to be public and had to be prepared for queries from the media, financial analysts, and staff. Without being aware of it, we were integrating our communications processes and thinking way beyond our focused functions.

How can communications and PR adapt to this world of continuous and uncontrolled information? First, we must always assume that whichever direction we target our communications, it will ricochet to other key audiences. Anticipate the impact the news will have on audiences beyond its intended target and plan accordingly.

Second, all communications strategies must be developed and executed across the entire organization. All communications functions have to work cooperatively in order to enhance and protect the company's reputation. More than ever, communications is becoming a team sport.

Third, we all must be both generalists and specialists. In fact, communication roles might one day be interchangeable. Granted there always will be a need for experts in a particular specialty or practice. But when information flashes across our organizations from an outside source, we have to be nimble. Be prepared to think across communication silos and be ready to jump in, if necessary, and take on another role.

Some organizations might learn from our colleagues in politics. Both major parties had SWAT teams monitoring what the other presidential candidate was saying and doing. When a candidate made a significant statement, the other party usually was ready with a rebuttal. When organizations are challenged by a crisis or unexpected damaging news, communicators should envision themselves as working for a political candidate. Have a SWAT team ready for any emergency, and when bad news strikes get your side of the story out as quickly as you can - in minutes not hours.

I remember working for the CEO at a Fortune 200 company. A seemingly innocuous comment he made during a Dow Jones interview held two days before the Christmas holiday wrought a seven-point drop in the company's share price.

This unwanted Christmas present had an enormous impact on an array of stakeholders around the world, particularly employees. So instead of packing up for Christmas, we gathered a team of communications specialists to remedy the situation - from investor relations to product and employee communications. Fortunately, through our efforts, the share price rebounded during the next several days.

We were blindsided by the interpretation of a seemingly unimportant comment. But we made the situation worse by not being prepared for the consequences that such an interview might have had on other key audiences.

As the world shrinks, we need to broaden our knowledge of communications dynamics. Of course, we will continue to need skilled practitioners who have relationships with and understand key stakeholders. But we also must break out of the cliched functional silos and understand how interdependent we have all become.

The days of pure targeted communications might be coming to an end. The era of interconnected and perhaps even interchangeable communications is emerging. With it, the "incredible converging field of communications," far from contracting, will offer growing opportunities and responsibilities for communicators.

  • John Abrams has handled external communications for such major organizations as Visa USA, Aventis, Rhone-Poulenc, Corning, and ABC Radio. He's now a consultant based in Skillman, NJ.

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