For some years, reputation and trust have dominated share of mind and dollars when it comes to so-called corporate communications. Regardless of tactics within the earned and social/digital sphere, those terms most often characterize the gold standard – at least when it comes to both a rationale for, and outcomes of, strategic communications.
Curiously, this reality persists at a time when the private sector’s ability to articulate and ultimately prove long-term value has never been more important to businesses and their stakeholders.
We say curiously, because in many cases, reputation is retrospective. It’s arguably the sum of past actions and decisions. Trust, meanwhile, can be seen as a snapshot of the present – how stakeholders feel about a company right now.
Yet, while both concepts can be projected into the future, neither precisely captures stakeholder capacity to appreciate, or not, a business’ prospects, versus its track record.
For this reason, FTI Consulting and its clients increasingly have turned toward another metric: confidence. Across sectors and situations, we find that questions of future-proofing are becoming less about softer, contingency planning – and more topics for hard-hitting business and capital allocation discussions.
Defining confidence and its drivers both inside and outside an organization is emerging as an increasingly essential component to any kind of business-driven communications discussion. For months, FTI Consulting has invested in building out proprietary research, analytics and communications frameworks relating to confidence – encapsulated in our 2014 Enterprise Value Study.
One window into why confidence – in addition to reputation and trust – is so critical to substantive communications comes from looking at technology-driven businesses. If you agree that most successful technology creates value from disruption, you communicate because that disruption also causes uncertainty.
Tech businesses, more than others, often ping-pong between skepticism and hype. They are nothing, until they are "it." Then, they are nothing, again. Assuming a functioning product or service, the differentiator is how well an executive team manages the uncertainty – and builds lasting confidence – linked to the business opportunity their technology creates.
The fact is: Technology changes faster than businesses can harness it. Uninformed opinion – whether positive or negative – moves even faster. The upshot is that uncertainty can erode value as fast as tech creates it.
It’s essential to focus on building confidence in organizations that deploy technology, not just confidence in the technology itself. A working tech product or service, no matter how effective, can’t stay ahead of the inevitable doubts or misunderstandings that its success creates. But an organization – with the right communications program – can.
Another way to consider confidence is looking at two major aspects of uncertainty: ignorance and risk. Filling gaps in basic knowledge – such as whether or not a technical solution for a problem exists and what it is – presents one kind of communications task. Ensuring people can correctly judge possible outcomes – for example, the risks of a given technology becoming the market standard – is a very different one.
Increasingly, communications and content need to address both situations, because in order to value technology, people need to not just understand it, but also to know why the options it creates are the best ones for them.
That is, tech companies experience setbacks because often they assume everyone will make the same conceptual leap they do, for example, from objectively better technology to a clearly better marketplace, or even world. They also can assume everyone agrees they should profit from the progress they feel they create.
But consensus on something as relative as progress takes more than bringing a technical advantage or expertise to market. In fact, it requires an interactive information system that makes it easy for key audiences to understand why both tech and a tech organization should be part of daily business or life.
That is why content that calibrates confidence in businesses built on disruptive technology – or disruptive uses of technology – is needed in order to better balance those businesses between skepticism and hype.
Though they don’t always see it, businesses talk about themselves for just four reasons: When they believe silence might cost them money; when securities law says they must; when they want to build demand for what they sell; and in order to hire people who can meet that demand. In fact, we think that a business that invests in explaining itself for any other reason wastes time and money. And we know that in each of these situations, building confidence in an organization, versus only a product, is essential.