In a world of permanent disruption, communicators need to rethink what impact means.
Think about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunsian stall holder who self-immolated in January 2011 and catalyzed the Arab Spring. Or Max Schrems, the 28-year-old Austrian activist whose Europe vs. Facebook campaign has seen the European Court of Justice strike down the EU-US Safe Harbor Agreement on data activity. These unlikely global players emerged from places we could never have predicted and changed the world in ways we could have never anticipated. They are not anomalies, but speak to the profound volatility of the world in which we find ourselves.
This world is defined by a tension between continued and rapid globalization and the fragmentation of global political authority. The process of global economic integration is giving rise to new power centers across the globe from China to India, Brazil, Indonesia, and others. It is creating truly multinational corporations with interests that do not align closely with any single nation-state. At the same time, globalization is creating issue areas which require pressing attention, from climate change to international migration, taxation, cyber threats, and trans-border crime. In short, this is a world where demand for leadership outstrips supply.
This new multipolar reality creates opportunities to drive impact and rewards those willing to be bold and creative. It has created space for China to challenge neoliberal international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank through its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Silk Road Initiative. It is rewarding, complex, and unlikely coalitions of countries brought together, like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), by a desire to increase their share of political voice, or MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia), a disparate collection of self-proclaimed "middle-powers" keen on making their mark on the world stage.
But it’s not just nation-states that are driving impact in this new and more complex world. Dubai represents a new breed of megacity that has used branding and communications to assert its presence in this new world order. The Occupy Movement, which began on Wall Street and was emulated in places as disparate as Hong Kong and Turkey, represents the desire of global citizens to express their dissatisfaction with global elites. They must all compete with a cacophony of voices vying for political influence from NGOs to activist shareholders, terrorist groups, emerging market multinationals, bloggers, wealthy individuals, and philanthropists.
Expectations for companies in this new reality have also been transformed. At a time when governments often appear less able and are less trusted to provide critical social goods, publics look to corporations to fill the gap. Polling shows, perhaps counter-intuitively, that Millennials look most of all to corporations to solve pressing social problems. In this context, expectations of communicators have shifted irrevocably and the challenge of being heard has never been greater.
What does this all mean for communicators? To start with, in order to understand and anticipate change, we need greater predictive capability. That means harnessing big data, opinion research, political risk, and cultural intelligence. It means making new digital tools for dissecting and understanding audiences part of the lifeblood of our organizations. We need to mine all of these disparate sources of information with the rigor and discipline of management consultants, but with the speed and agility of bloggers and protesters.
This intelligence needs to feed into business structures, which are capable of embracing and navigating global change. Communications teams, strategy departments, executive teams, and boards must have the diversity, background, education, insights, and life experience of newly empowered stakeholder communities. These business functions must come together in a way that allows companies to not only think globally, but align globally. That means tearing down barriers to effective collaboration, recognizing the growing power of internal communications, and creating a common culture that runs through organizations while being sensitive to local insights.
Most importantly, we need to maintain our relevance by communicating in ways that will make us heard and understood. We need to embrace the fact that digital is so much more than just another channel. It is a fundamental shift in the way that people communicate and an opportunity for us to transform our understanding of behavior into a competitive advantage. We need to learn from the activists, and assemble asymmetrical and unorthodox alliances that cut across traditional boundaries of age, class, gender, and nationality. We need to keep pace with a world of permanent disruption. We need to matter.
Brad Staples is CEO of APCO Worldwide.