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Over the past year, I’ve witnessed and engaged in several discussions – both online and in person – that explored the mandate and modus operandi of the employee communications function. Though the topics vary, a recurring thread – or really more of a question – relates to who “owns” content developed for an employee audience.
In one online polemic, for example, a participant suggested that a key role of internal communication (IC) practitioners was not only to create most of the content for employees, but also to control, or filter, all content reaching staff to ensure they were not overwhelmed or confused by irrelevant information. Many other discussions seemed to support this position – which suggests a traditional role where the development and delivery of content is directed, if not rigidly controlled, by the IC team.
Though I agree that in many organizations there is far too much frivolous or irrelevant content dumped on employees, I am struck that this “we know what’s best” attitude is badly out of sync with the prevailing ethos of social media, where the power of creating and vetting content and determining editorial agendas has shifted to the “crowd” – or individuals.
Looking from another angle, however, it’s clear that the answer isn’t a free-for-all where individuals and functions are able to generate and share content as they see fit. Employees in most companies often complain of being overwhelmed by the volume of emails and other content – most of which has little relevance to their job or interests. Even accessing simple social platforms (such as Yammer or Chatter) seems to be a stretch for busy employees. So more is not better.
It’s true that some content or communication tools created organically can be useful and get traction; I can think of several examples where social tools or even more traditional e-newsletters created by teams or offices are successful (in terms of reach, ratings and impact.) The problem with a largely decentralized, informal approach is that in aggregate the communication can lack quality, focus, structure and purpose. It can also be very difficult in these noisy, informal environments to find the most urgent or important content; even critical leadership announcements can get lost in the mix.
In this context, I suggest the answer lies in a balanced approach where the communication team becomes a content curator – or a light-handed editorial manager. In essence, ownership of content is shared. The IC team should still play a robust editorial role – creating critical corporate content, counseling functions and teams to encourage value and quality over volume, and limiting what gets broadcast through main corporate tools and channels – but also foster and amplify content generated by employees and internal experts. Whether content is valuable and relevant should be determined jointly by all parties – with the ultimate measure being whether users access, use and share the information. This curator model also allows for rich peer-to-peer communication through social platforms and collaboration tools.
In reality, internal communication has always been a balancing act between communicating what the company wants and covering what the employees want to know and talk about (usually more personal and local issues and “what’s in it for me” questions.) Positioning the IC team as a curator – rather than a self-appointed editorial gatekeeper – builds on that tradition and provides leeway to take advantage of user-generated content, organic storytelling and social or collaboration platforms. It also reinforces the reality that employees – like external consumers – have ideas, interests and information that bear as much consideration as those of senior executives. This new construct may not please traditional CEOs or communicators who favor a top-down approach, but it’s a better recipe for success in this evolving environment.
I haven’t really talked about the evolving nature of content – with the growing emphasis on storytelling and trans-media digital content – but that’s a story for another day.
During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.
But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.
So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology? While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:
- Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
- Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
- Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
- Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
- Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
- Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.
Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.
This article by the folks at Hay Group argues that the next frontier for HR is harnessing “big data” to drive engagement with employees and improve talent management – the holy grail of many HR teams. The author suggests there is a stark contrast between the massive explosion of data and real-time analytics in fields like marketing and retail with the halting, uneven progress in HR. For many HR teams, the promise of big data is still more potential than reality – notably in the area of talent development and succession planning.
This assessment is in line with what I’ve seen over years of working closely with HR teams in a wide range of organizations. Despite the emergence of powerful tools and technology – and access to related data on employees and their performance – too many HR departments are still struggling with rudimentary challenges like creating clean, dynamic staff directories and are barely scratching the surface of data collection and analysis. Though in theory HR departments know a great deal about their employees, I haven’t seen (or heard of) many teams that are consistently collecting and analyzing data and using their insights to direct their policies and programs. (To be fair, the one area that seems to be evolving for the better is online performance management. ) In fact, it’s not rare for me to encounter HR teams still using written records or forms for many of their HR transactions – which obviously limits their ability to quickly collect, update and review the information.
Here are a few examples where big data – used to its full potential – could dramatically improve engagement and results beyond talent management:
- Virtually all leading organizations conduct some sort of engagement or culture survey. Many of these surveys, however, remain superficial (often formulaic) annual surveys more useful for benchmarking than driving real change – including responsive program and policy adjustments – across the organization. Often these surveys are outsourced and the information is reviewed once to develop the final report, and never seen or used again. With all the enterprise social media platforms and real-time analytic tools available, would it not make sense to implement a more sustained, detailed and actionable research program with employees? At minimum, companies should track the content of internal conversations (on the intranet, blogs or other discussion platforms) with the same level of sophistication and follow-up as they do with external platforms. Listening should not be a one-time annual event, but a full-time contact sport.
- Though some companies have mastered the art of knowledge management and make it easy for their teams to identify and contact peers for collaboration, others still struggle with relatively simple profile information that would allow employees across all levels to search for peers with specific skills, expertise or experience. Having this data readily available would also help leaders develop ad-hoc project teams and make informed staff assignments.
- While consumers are repeatedly probed for their opinions and preferences on topics like communication and marketing, employees are not consistently asked about company communications. Though some companies conduct robust, actionable internal audits designed to assess the effectiveness of their communication efforts, many rely on piece-meal efforts that are often event-driven, sporadic and informal (qualitative.) Others don’t take full advantage of the built-in tracking devices on their intranets or corporate email tools, which can provide a rolling update on key metrics like traffic, page views and comments. This is a relatively easy fix that can help to make corporate communications much more relevant, resonant and impactful.
- Though it’s not employee data per se, harnessing the ideas and collective wisdom of an internal audience can be a major driver of innovation and engagement. Companies like Dell and RBC use an internal crowd-sourcing platform to solicit and rank employee ideas on a range of topics, and incorporate the best suggestions in their operations and planning. Several vendors provide user-friendly platforms that do most of the work behind the scenes and allow users to focus on the ideas and the outcomes.
Much like IT’s reluctant acceptance of social media and new technology, I fear HR’s slow adoption of data collection and analytics will decrease its relevance and credibility in the coming years. The result will be the exact opposite of what the HR teams seek; prospective employees raised on social media, ubiquitous communication and all-digital content are unlikely to be impressed if the very team responsible for managing talent and fostering a dynamic culture is so clearly out of sync with social and technology trends.
One of the ongoing challenges of my consulting work the past few years has been to convince clients to engage their employees in their external social media efforts. The argument for doing this is very solid – see this excellent post by Dion Hinchliffe of Dachis Group on the benefits and requirements of using employee advocates through social media. Perhaps the best argument for activating employees is that they are highly trusted by consumers and customers alike. So why is this not happening more often?
In my experience there are several answers to this question. For one thing, many organizations are still reluctant to engage in any social media activity – external or within the enterprise – so it’s understandable that their employee outreach strategy would also be nascent. Others are extremely concerned about rogue employees who can compromise the reputation of the company in one tweet or YouTube video, and can bring up several recent examples to support their position. A surprising number of companies (from my experience) prefer to wait and see, despite the fact they know their employees are already active on social media platforms (such as unofficial company Facebook pages) without the benefit of clear direction, guidelines or training. Companies react differently to these unsanctioned sites and posts – some prefer to turn a blind eye, while others try to quell the comments through punishment and/or additional training. I’ve also seem the other extreme, where cherry-picked employee advocates stray too much into cheerleading (think obnoxious, repetitive Twitter hype) and lose the authenticity and credibility their role demands.
But perhaps the biggest reason – and unspoken truth – is that some company environments are poisoned by distrust, disillusionment and woeful lack of engagement. If many of your employees are unhappy and discouraged, does it make sense to give them full license to represent the company with consumers and customers? Of course, the answer is no. Or at least, not all in one shot. These companies need to fix their workplace culture and foster engagement and collaboration within their walls before they think about activating their staff on social media platforms. (In fact, disgruntled employees can damage a company’s reputation through their actions and comments whether or not they are using social media.) But that’s not an excuse for complete inaction. A social media strategy can allow for a smaller team of ambassadors at the outset, who are selected for specific roles and expertise, provided ample direction and support and highly trained. Real-time monitoring is also critical, not only to assess impact with consumers but also to identify potential issues and ensure ambassadors don’t operate outside the guidelines.
Ultimately, companies need to realize their employees represent them – whether formally or otherwise – and will often be active on social media platforms with or without formal guidance or consent. The best approach is developing a realistic plan to ensure employees are informed, directed, trained and supported to represent the company in a positive light. Using a proactive strategy will allow companies to deploy their best marketing and PR asset – their team members.
Earlier this year Forrester came out with another study commenting on the trend towards increased mobility of technology, and the important implications for marketers. (Here’s another good summary on enterprise mobility trends.) In fact, mobile access to digital information and tools is becoming almost ubiquitous in some developed countries. As Forrester notes in the report: With more than 1 billion smartphones in consumers’ pockets at the beginning of 2013, mobile is driving a second Internet revolution that’s even more profound than the first one. Mobile creates new value for consumers and businesses, alters cost structures, and disrupts ecosystems. That’s why marketers must move away from tactical mobile efforts to more transformative mobile marketing strategies in 2013.
This disruptive technology is changing how consumers conduct a wide range of activities and use an expanding array of applications and tools – from accessing their email, to banking to downloading an e-book or watching a movie. And the trend is still evolving in both scope and amplitude; in fact, the very definition of mobility is changing. It’s not enough to just address the use of smartphones, or even the booming use of tablets. The recent emphasis is towards “wearable” devices (like Google Glasses) cars and TVs that extend the mobile experience.
Is this mobility trend another example of how internal communications, and employee engagement efforts, lag marketing trends or externally focused practices? There are huge potential benefits to a robust, relevant internal mobile strategy for organizations. In a mobile environment, the traditional hurdle of access to information and communication sources – which for many workers remains elusive – becomes irrelevant. Furthermore, communication teams can personalize content based on device, role, context (time, knowledge, location) and even personal preference. Mobility provides unique convenience and immediacy – potentially giving employees the ability to do “anything, anywhere and anytime.” It can also provide workers with access to real-time data, a critical benefit in many occupations.
Yet, my personal experience suggests many companies have rudimentary or nascent mobile strategies to reach employees; many appear to still be struggling simply to make their intranet or other digital sources available to their workers. Few are adequately addressing the booming use of smart phones – still debating BYOD issues and/or not distributing smart tools broadly across their workforce. Even fewer organizations outside technology circles are focused on tablets, which are the biggest growth area. Even those considering how to share content across mobile devices do little to help employees create or share content, or collaborate using these same mobile tools. I recognize companies have to address the security, support and cost issues associated with a shift to mobile, but those excuses are wearing thin after several years of discussion.
Some observers are more optimistic about enterprise adoption – check out this article – arguing that the gap between personal use of mobility and work use will continue to narrow. This blog post suggests the expanded use of personal devices in the workplaces (extending to non-executive staff) will continue to drive adoption of mobile applications inside the enterprise. What both of these articles make clear is that even companies reluctant to jump on the mobility bandwagon need to evolve their reliance on their internal “network” (typically secure corporate email, LAN network and intranet) or they risk seeing those corporate channels becoming irrelevant.
I’ll be watching with interest to see if and how companies move towards this mobility trend to improve their workplace communications.
Like many of my peers, I look forward to Mary Meeker’s annual report on internet and technology trends. Though I always tell clients they need to focus on their own situation and custom solutions, it’s also true that a PR program devoid of context and detached from prevailing technology trends is likely to fail. With that caveat, here’s my take on the highlights of Meeker’s report:
- Internet becoming ubiquitous: Internet growth around the world continues, with 2.4 billion people now online, and there’s plenty of room for that to continue with huge untapped populations in developing countries. For example, internet reach is only at 42% in China and 45% in Brazil.
- Digital content booming: The growth of digital information that is created and shared – including documents, pictures, video, music and tweets – has multiplied 9 times in the last five years. And this content is increasingly findable due to being tagged and searchable through numerous platforms. Incidentally, emerging platforms like Vine or Snap are two examples of new options for creating and sharing content.
- Social Media popularity growing: The use of social media platforms continues to increase. Though Facebook still dominates the global scene, it saw a slight decrease in percentage of users. Newer platforms like Instagram and Tumblr experienced the biggest growth, while YouTube is now firmly established as the second most popular platform (by percentage.)
- Mobility becoming more common: About 15% of internet traffic is now mobile (up from less than 1% in 2009), and growth of at least 1.5 X per year is likely to continue, if not accelerate.
- Emergence of “always-on” global citizens: The result of growing mobility options, digital content and transparency is giving rise to more people who are essentially always connected to the internet – no matter where they are or what they are doing.
- New devices fueling boom: Though smartphones continue to grow in popularity, other devices like tablets (growing 3 times faster than phones) and so-called wearables (e.g. sensor-enabled Google glasses) and drivables (connected cars) are likely to turbo-charge the mobility trend, expand functionality and make everywhere computing the norm.
What does this all mean for the PR/communication industry? It suggests that companies that are already lagging in their understanding and adoption of new technology – whether via social media platforms, mobile delivery or multi-media content – will risk irrelevance and even obsolescence if they don’t adapt quickly. And those that are still using traditional models of marketing, customer service or news management are clearly swimming against the current. New technology has changed how people access information, create content, make decisions, purchase products and even communicate with their peers. There is no longer a safe harbor for companies who believe they are outside the reach of these trends, since their employees, and customers, are increasingly immersed in the always-on environment described by Meeker and others. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.
Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.
As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.
This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)
I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?
This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:
“CES is about more than just technology. The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”
I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.
A recent war of words – played out on the Web between Gawker and Reddit – was only the latest example of the argument surrounding the right approach for screening comments on the Intranet. In this case, the folks at Gawker helped to out one of the most notorious trolls on Reddit, which is a popular hangout for anonymous users who like to push the envelope on what is appropriate content. The discussion surrounding this issue raised important questions about privacy, conduct rules and the quality and scope of free expression. I have to admit I’m glad Gawker “outed” the troll in question – since I found his work toxic – but I wish Reddit would have more taken proactive steps to purge their site of the most egregious abuses.
This online polemic brought to light an unfortunate truth about the Web; the sad state of commentary of many sites and platforms. Several years ago, when new social platforms greatly expanded and facilitated the process of online commentary, I was optimistic that communities (both large and specific to sites and authors) would generate a fairly useful and candid exchange of ideas. There would always be outliers and pesky critics who seem to spend all their waking hours on sites, of course, but on balance the community would self-regulate and provide a range of reasonable ideas and arguments.
Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing online lately I have to admit that is often not the case. Many comment sections – even for websites and platforms where you would expect good self-regulation and informed users – are a wasteland of trolls, spammers and perverts. Some of the worst offenders are political hacks that don’t even bother with original content, re-posting their canned message numerous times with little logic. If there are rules of conduct and filters for inappropriate language, they are not immediately apparent. I suspect many of the sites are rarely if ever moderated or edited. I realize that some topics invite strong opinions – notably news and political sites – but the noise has spread well beyond the expected sites and platforms. Take a look at this recent example on CNN, where a seemingly innocuous (and positive) news post about Drake getting his high-school diploma sparked a nasty, racist diatribe of abuse.
Most communication professionals would agree the ideal is to foster robust dialogue on the Web – and to allow questions, comments and suggestions that help extend and enrich the discussion (or related products and services.) But that choice is no longer automatic given the bottom-feeder trash on many comment sections. The key question for many has become – is it even worth it to try to manage the comment sections? More pointedly, how do you encourage and filter comments without coming down too hard on either censorship or chaos? This question is a critical issue not just for individuals and organizations on the web, but also for companies striving to engage their employees through internal platforms behind the firewall.
My take is that allowing anonymous comments – particularly inside a secure, corporate platform – opens the door to the worst abuses. Even without formal identification or registration requirements, the quality of dialogue would greatly improve with more diligent moderation. Set common-sense rules and enforce them. Where abuses do occur – whether based on a site’s conduct guidelines or broader legal restrictions – site managers should take responsibility and remove and/or punish the offenders, rather than taking a hands-off approach with a blanket defense of freedom of speech. Whatever the response, something has to change or I fear many comment sections will be left to a vocal, vitriolic minority that erodes the credibility and relevance of the conversation, as well as the sponsoring sites and organizations.
I’ve been in the communication business a long time; now well into my second decade. Though I’ve witnessed many changes as the profession has evolved – most of them positive – there are also several industry characteristics that seem to stubbornly resist progress, almost like anachronisms. These aren’t so positive. Granted, this is just an unscientific tally from my personal perspective, but here is a list of communication quirks, or habits, that I’m surprised to still be seeing in the workplace:
- I’m amazed at the prominence of much-maligned PowerPoint as a communication tool. Even harsh critics seem to use the tool – with minor variations and embellishments – even as they attack the platform. Despite the introduction of plenty of new technology and platforms over the years – including more dynamic PP tools like Prezi and new visual options – the tried-and-true model remains ubiquitous.
- Interactive, digital 3-D environments like Second Life have a very low profile, and usage, despite the early hype and promise. A few cutting-edge firms use the platforms for a wide range of communication activities (including secure, enterprise versions for internal use) but many pros seem to have little awareness or interest in this technology.
- Corporate communications content is almost devoid of humor, which is so prominent in our digital lives and a key ingredient in the best marketing and entertainment campaigns. I understand some topics are serious, but the PR industry seems to have a deathly fear of humor that fuels work that is needlessly boring and forgettable.
- I still see much more “push” communication – or talking to/at our audiences – than “pull” activities, where users can access information they want, when and where they want to. Genuine conversation – which can be fostered through a range of new social media tools – is even more rare.
- Many companies still have no social media strategy. And I’m not talking about a proactive, intervention plan. Many don’t even have a defensive, passive social media program – with a basic employee policy and/or rudimentary monitoring.
- While the internet is truly global – a virtual community where distance and borders are irrelevant – many companies are still surprisingly insular and lack basic knowledge of global communication trends and differences. (One example: no awareness or recognition of the dominance of languages other than English on the Internet.)
- With apologies to my friends in IT… most IT departments in organizations remain a reluctant partner and barrier to progress, rather than a technology leader or facilitator. Yes, they have to consider costs and risks. But IT’s lack of attention to new technology and thin excuses (we can’t support that third-party platform) has made the function less relevant in many organizations.
- Finally, perhaps the most surprising…too many professionals still lead with a tactic at the expense of strategy. It’s the old shoot, fire, aim adage…with a checklist mentality focused on deliverables and activity and not on driving impactful, relevant objectives. The new version – “can you set us up with a Facebook page” – is simply an updated variation of pushing out the old employee newsletter (without clear purpose or metrics.)
Like in any industry, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. And our bosses or clients – senior executives – are often the ones pushing back on untested, new approaches. But if we hope to position ourselves as smart, agile consultants we can’t fall back on excuses and inertia.
I have to admit to a morbid fascination with the hyper-partisan and highly ritualistic wall of noise that serves as communication during this election season in the United States. You know the playbook: deploying an army of “surrogates” to amplify the daily message platform; vacuous appearances in friendly, choreographed media interviews; carpet-bombing of shrill, bombastic advertising (much of it devoid of nuance or credibility); and, commentary by a motley crew of journalists, polarized media personalities and self-appointed expert pundits.
The premise behind this political playbook seems to be that saying something loud and often – no matter how tenuous the relationship with objectivity or truth – will eventually get people to believe it . It suggests that subtlety and creativity have no place in bare-knuckle political advertising (which would explain the highly formulaic production that mimics low-rent infomercials.) It also seems based on the assumption that most of us rely, almost exclusively, on media sources that are already aligned with our beliefs – almost like talking to ourselves. In other words, we access news and information from our side of the political divide; the rest is likely rotten and misleading anyway, so why bother. Perhaps the worst aspect of the political toolkit is the intense personal attacks; the debate is often framed not by disagreement about policy or vision, but by dubious personal attacks questioning the character and integrity of the candidates. Beyond the merit of these specific tactics, which seem almost anachronistic in this age of empowering technological progress and social media, this whole approach seems perched on the belief that most people are simply not very smart.
In spite of my personal distaste for this carnival, it does raise two important questions for me and other communication professionals. Does any of this really work? And is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?
Does any of this really work? There’s been plenty of discourse and disagreement on the question of whether the political communication model actually works. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to believe that most informed observers, – who are willing to look beyond the most predictable, partisan media outlets – have the judgment and intellectual curiosity to make up their own minds on the issues. Those who are most partisan happily return to their favored sources to hear what they want to hear, but many others will take advantage of the rich, diverse array of information sources, formal and otherwise, to shape their opinion. In terms of the loudest winning the argument (or election), history is littered with those who mistakenly thought their money, and advertising clout, could buy them victory (Meg Whitman is one recent example.) Furthermore, I’m not sold on the logic that hearing a message repeated by 10 people, all obviously towing the party line, will make us more likely to believe it than if we heard it only from the candidate. There are also many examples of voters contradicting the polls, and experts, predicting one outcome or another based on their campaign acumen. So my verdict on whether this model works is: the evidence is mixed, and I don’t see enough reason to throw my values and professional integrity out the window.
Is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?
This second question is one that comes up often with peers, particularly younger professionals new to the PR/communication industry. My answer to them is that politics is the last place I would go to pick up valuable best practices. Yes, there are certainly some lessons we can learn from the political process – notably the sophisticated use of research in message development, enlisting of third parties and local volunteers, and efficient use of “war room” monitoring and response teams. There are also important media trends we can learn from, such as the shift to more blatant, unapologetic political alignment. But overall the extreme (some would say perverse) communication approach favored in political campaigns is a good model of what to avoid if you want to foster a credible, lasting relationship with your audiences. Hype and propaganda may win you a few temporary victories (including some elections) but facts, balance and transparency are more important if you want long-term relevance and respect as a source, or professional counsel.
Ultimately, I have faith in the capacity of well-intentioned people to sift through the noise, do their homework and make up their own minds. Banking on the ignorance and gullibility of people is not in the best interest of voters, or the PR profession.