|Friday, 19 March 2010 12:31|
Each month, we ask two communications practitioners to debate an issue via an exchange of emails: in this month’s digital discussion, we ask: “Has the recession led to a fundamental change in corporate communications?"
Nick Parker, a writer and trainer at brand language, writing and training consultancy The Writer will be arguing that fundamental change hasn’t materialised. Taking the opposing view is Louise Ballard, managing director, corporate at corporate communications firm Grayling.
It was the perfect opportunity, wasn’t it? And it should have helped bring the change that every decent comms person has been pushing for for years.
Behemoths crumbled. The public bailed out the banks. Everyone was sick to the back teeth with corporate arrogance, bonus culture, all of it. The time was ripe for a huge change in tone. It should have been the end of corporatespeak, obfuscation, talking down to people, all that tedious waffle. Everyone just wanted to hear a big, heartfelt ‘sorry’.
The time was right for everyone just to start talking normally. And yet the change just hasn’t come.
A few months ago something happened to me that summed this up for me: I’d run a seminar on writing corporate newsletters. I’d shown examples of people getting their tone woefully wrong. (One internal beauty referred to redundancies as ‘synergy related headcount realignment’. Nice.) And when the tables broke off into their discussion groups and swapped their newsletters around, there was much self-critical talk: yes, we’ve been too distant; look at all the jargon; it’s not surprising people don’t trust us...
And then afterwards, a chap came up to me. ‘I agree with everything you’ve said. Can The Writer help us?’ he said. ‘We’d love our newsletter to have the perception of honesty.’ In general, that’s the most I see. The desire for the perception of honesty. Or have I missed an outpouring of genuine ` honest talk?
“It should have been the end of corporatespeak, obfuscation, talking down to people, all that tedious waffle. The time was right for everyone just to start talking normally. And yet the change just hasn’t come”
Well I think you have. Public scrutiny has never been so intense, and companies have had little choice but to take heed of a new landscape that demands more transparency than we have ever seen before. So I’m in no doubt whatsoever that the recession has changed the way companies communicate and for the better.
You see, I think it all comes down to trust. I don’t need to tell you that the financial crisis and ensuing recession left gaping holes in the public’s trust towards everything from institutions they believed were impenetrable to governments that they thought were in control. These days people feel they have a right to know; the FT’s slogan – ‘we live in financial times’ – perhaps sums it up. There has been a noticeable rise in city-themed commentaries to the extent that we’ve seen even niche financial news hitting the front pages of tabloids, surely reflecting a real change in public interest. Noticeably, it was the FT which bagged the biggest average readership last year – with a daily average readership of 418,000, up 16% from 2007. (NRS figures)
How are companies rebuilding that trust? Not all are doing it willingly, I’ll grant you, but on the whole Corporate Comms now sits right up there on the agenda of a CEO whose personal as well as corporate reputation is now on the line – and if management doesn’t take communications into their own hands, the explosion of social media means that others will. And I would argue that the recession has been the impetus behind the acceleration of the blog, the vlog and the tweet, possibility the biggest transformation in communications we have seen since the birth of the internet.
Open and transparent communications are fundamental to corporate reputation. Surely CEOs who don’t take heed, do so at their peril?
Yes, I agree – the public demand openness. (But hey, they always have.) Yes, social media is changing the rules. (So now people needn’t just ‘demand’ openness, they’ve got the power to force it.) And yes, CEOs who don’t sort their comms out are in for a tough time. (Hallelujah.)
So yes, of course, change is happening. Though for what it’s worth, I suspect it’s social media that’s really responsible, rather than the recession.
The real question, though, is how companies are reacting to this change. You’re dead right that ‘not all are doing it willingly’. The mood is much more like grudging acceptance. A sense that social media is just one more channel to be managed. And this is important, because readers can always tell from your tone whether you really mean it or not. Unwilling change is as bad (or perhaps even worse) than no change at all.
Let’s just take a quick glance over the last couple of months (and the last issue of Communicate): Eurostar fumbling their Christmas train meltdown – only really getting to grips with things when someone in the office worked out how to use a web cam. Toyota, making the classic comms mistake of saying too little, too late, and now having to do enormous damage limitation. And as I type, there’s the unfolding saga of Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom status: the same politicians who lined up to lecture the banks on cleaning up their act, showing that they’re still prone to the odd touch of obfuscation when it comes to being honest about their own ‘financial times.’
So yes, things are changing. But it ain’t exactly happening in a way anyone can be proud of, is it?
“I don’t expect everyone to be open about all aspects of the business, but you cannot argue with the fact that companies and CEOs in particular are far more active now. The boardroom door is now firmly open…”
Well maybe pride doesn’t have to come into it. Whether businesses embrace their strategies grudgingly or willingly, doesn’t really matter. It’s the fact that they do it at all, and do it well, that counts. Look at Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury – Irene Rosenfeld was in every broadsheet, tabloid, broadcast and blog for weeks – facing and addressing public opinion. Companies no longer have the option of hiding behind closed doors issuing their classic one liner, “no comment”.
Today companies have no choice but to respond responsibly to the public. When you have a prime minister on the same bill as ‘celebrities’ like Kym Marsh and Jordan, you know we are living in world where openness has become a par for the course. Popularity is not an easy win, for CEOs or politicians, but it has become genuinely important to prove they care.
All businesses are now in the public spotlight; from global giants like Apple with Steve Jobs at its fore to local success stories like Innocent Drinks and their clever and quirky approach. Increasingly, the public judge not only their products but also personality, culture and values. I don’t expect everyone to be a Richard Branson and be open about all aspects of the business, but you cannot argue with the fact that companies and CEOs in particular are far more active now. The boardroom door is now firmly open…
Oh, but I think it does matter whether companies embrace their strategies grudgingly or willingly. It matters a great deal. Because it shows in their tone. It shows in two big ways:
1. Begrudging openness always ends up sounding huffy and defensive. Which of course makes their comms completely counter-productive. And we’re much more susceptible to tone these days, now that we’re getting less and less of our information through newspapers and traditional media. A small example: A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a tweet about posh members club One Alfred Place. They had come in for some flak online for clamping down on members who used the club ‘too much’ (ie: used it as an office) The club’s CEO, Sharon Brittan put a statement up on their website. Here’s just a snippet:
‘We have been explaining to all new members that we have a usage cap and in recent days we have had to let a very small number of members know that we are unable to renew their membership due to the frequency of their visits.’
There was more in this vein. Now, she’d done the ‘right’ thing of responding quickly and publicly, via the club’s blog. And their position is probably fair enough. But to be honest, I didn’t care. I’m not weighing up the facts, like I might have done with a news story. I’m just left with a tonal impression. And all that chippy talk of ‘usage cap’ and ‘frequency of visits’? It’s like they’re standing on the steps of the club, crossing their arms and scowling at me.
2. Unless you throw yourself into it, you’ll just sound dull. This is really important. Because you can have all the latest channels – all the blogs and vlogs and tweets that you like, but if you’re still adopting that careful, measured, boring corporate tone, you’re wasting your time. So, Irene Rosenfeld might have been out there for weeks. But what’s the one thing everyone remembers from the Kraft- Cadbury story? Felicity Loudon’s wail: ‘it’s a horror story... they are a plastic cheese company, and this is the jewel in the crown.’ It’s a corker of a line, because it comes from the heart. Brands are emotional things. Corporate comms hasn’t got comfortable with this yet.
And until it does, I won’t consider it to have changed.
Dear Nick, You see, I’m not sure why you think it’s only about tone. Yes, agreed, it’s important that companies mean what they say and sound like they mean it but sometimes the facts are the facts! In Kraft v Cadburys, the fervent passion marshalled by both a British and a chocolate brand, was always going to win in the soundbite stakes!
Stuffy, huffy – agreed companies don’t always get the tone right – and we PR people must take some responsibility for keeping comms free of corporate speak. However, I still maintain that we’ve seen some fundamental changes over the past few years and much of that attributable to an increase in the public’s demand for transparency and honesty.
Take British Airways, once again this week plagued by the threat of paralyzing cabin crew strikes. Suffering inordinately as a result of the recession, and with lessons firmly learnt by Terminal 5, BA is now winning the war of the words. Long since the world’s favourite airline, who’d have thought that public opinion would ever be back on their side? I’d wager it’s the straight talking of Willie Walsh, the face of the company, that’s played a big role.
I go back to social media – as an accelerator of change. Whether the recession was the chicken or the egg remains yet to be seen, but is it a coincidence that London is the city with the highest number of Twitter users in the world?
Finally, I go back to my original point, corporate communications has changed for the better as a result of the recession, and whether it was kicking and screaming is neither here nor there.