Home Archive February 2011 Learning to loosen up
Learning to loosen up
Tuesday, 22 February 2011 12:10

Corporate communicators no longer live in a world that can be controlled, with critics silenced and crises managed. Here, in an extract from his brilliant new book ‘Loose’, Martin Thomas explains why communicators need to come to terms with the chaos 

“Digital communications is a destabilising force in a bureaucratic environment. And I am sitting right in the middle of a bureaucratic environment.”

The response of a senior corporate communications director, quoted in a report by recruitment specialists Watson Helsby.

pg 26-27 image.jpgI spoke at a corporate communications conference recently and was approached after my talk by a very senior corporate affairs professional, who told me, ‘The problem, you see, is that my CEO and chairman don’t like bad news. In fact, they see it as my job to keep bad news away from the boardroom table. So I can’t really go to them and suggest that we facilitate an open and transparent dialogue with our customers that might result in critical comments appearing on the company website.’

My first thought was ‘get a backbone’. Denial would appear to be the order of the day in the boardroom: pretend that everyone loves you and bury bad news under the carpet. This tendency was confirmed in a report by recruitment specialists Watson Helsby, which studied the attitudes of corporate affairs directors to social media. It concluded that ‘many [corporate communications professionals] are struggling to make sense of digital media and the disorder it has generated. For many it is more “thought in progress”.’ The report’s findings also suggest that, in the dreaded vernacular of government, the corporate affairs or corporate communications role within most major institutions is no longer fit for purpose. Predicated on the illusion of control – the idea that a corporate reputation can be protected by tight news management and the careful nurturing of a handful of key opinion formers – the role no longer bears scrutiny in the era of consumer empowerment.

The last 20 years have seen the elevation of the once humble in-house press officer to the powerful role of corporate affairs chief – the person responsible for polishing the corporate reputation, keeping the critics at bay and the stakeholders happy. They have done their job so well that far too many of their internal audiences – especially those occupying the c-suite – have bought in to the idea that the world around them can be controlled, critics silenced and crises managed. Unfortunately, in a world in which trust is at a premium, influence is dispersed and criticism is cheap, these masters (or mistresses) of corporate spin are struggling. Stories can no longer be buried with a quiet word to your mate on the City desk.

Many years ago I worked for a financial and corporate communications agency which used to go into client pitches with two boards. On one board was written the word ‘friends’ and on the other ‘control’. The message was simple, compelling and, given the spectacular growth of the agency since that time, highly profitable: ‘We are friends with the handful of people whose opinions matter most in the valuation of stock prices or forming of corporate reputations and we know how to control the messages that they receive and transmit.’

Oh, how things have changed. Authority and expertise have been dispersed to the extent that analysts are no longer reliant on personal briefings and are picking up their information from the web, and opinion formers are just as likely to be obscure bloggers operating out of their bedrooms as professional journalists or eminent academics. And the CEO is beginning to ask why sites critical of the company are starting to appear at the top of the Google rankings. You are paid a big salary to stop this type of stuff from appearing, or at least that’s what you told them.

Welcome to the new world of the public affairs or corporate communications director: chaotic, complicated and largely unspinnable. It requires a completely new set of skills, in which an understanding of social media, behavioural psychology and influencer marketing is far more important than a bulging contacts list on your BlackBerry. It is a world in which many of the people currently occupying the leading corporate affairs roles are going to struggle.

Centralised, hierarchical systems made sense in a world in which information and knowledge were relatively scarce commodities and could be tightly controlled, but the decentralisation of knowledge, brought about by the inexorable rise of the internet, combined with a collapse of trust in traditional sources of authority and expertise, legitimizes the creation of flatter, decentralised operational models.

In a recent survey of UK-based human resources professionals in HR Magazine, only 35% believed that the traditional command-and-control model of leadership would prevail in their companies over the next five years, but to highlight how far most businesses have to travel, 85% admitted that traditional, hierarchical forms of leadership continued to dominate their organisations. Rapidly changing customer expectations are also forcing institutions to operate and respond in real time, rather than institutional time, placing a premium on agility, flexibility and an ability to improvise. Longer term planning and cautious, careful deliberation are increasingly becoming luxuries that few organisations can afford.

People now expect to be able to pose questions, highlight problems, debate issues and share ideas with institutions across multiple communications platforms and in real time, all of which dramatises the structural, organisational and cultural weaknesses of the organisations that have to deal with them.

I find it mildly amusing that many of the companies that talk about embracing social media still take five days to get a press release out of the door. The emergence of social media has held up a mirror to businesses, political parties and other institutions, and the image it has shown them is not particularly attractive. The connected consumer has come face to face with the disconnected corporation.

Our world is messy and bewilderingly complex and the public mood is cynical, mildly subversive and increasingly adversarial. The institutions and senior managers best placed to thrive in this new world are loose: they have come to terms with the chaos and ambiguity of the modern world, embraced new forms of informal communal activity and harnessed new technology to help them operate in as close to real time as is possible. All of which makes them better equipped to deal with the rapidly changing expectations of employees, customers and other key stakeholders. Being loose won’t necessarily make them future-proof, but it gives them a chance of responding effectively to whatever the world throws their way.

‘Loose’ by Martin Thomas will be published on 3 March 2011 by Business Plus