The other day, at a seminar, I heard someone remark that companies increasingly had to start ‘working out loud.’ To me, this summed up the biggest change facing corporate communications in a generation.
Many people have titles like “Communications Director” and “Communications Manager” and, as such, are supposed to direct and manage, bringing order to chaos and, above all, exerting control over communications from and about their employer. And yet, if nothing else the communications trend of the last ten years has been a gradual erosion of control. Driven by the internet, the adoption of social media, and the fragmentation of information outlets, single-channel, one-way communications beloved by corporate have become increasingly outmoded; at best ineffective and at worst actively damaging.
This is doubly an issue because, as our research shows, one of the nine drivers of Authenticity is “credible communications.” Being credible without exerting iron control is new to many companies and, often, fairly scary. And yet, if an organisation is to bridge the authenticity gap, it needs to ensure not only that it is pushing stuff out, but that it is also engaging its audiences in such a way that it is both believed and valued.
Communicators, like many managers in other functions, are having to become more closely acquainted with the risk/return equation. Working out loud, letting people look beneath the corporate hood, communicating decisions in real time and allowing discussion, debate and dissent, can be uncomfortable internally and is not without external risk. Businesses can be complex, misunderstandings are easy, critics may be unreasonable or genuinely poisonous, and reputation is inherently fragile.
On the other hand, the potential rewards are real and powerful. It is interesting that all the ‘trust’ surveys suggest that people do not trust ‘business’ (or politicians for that matter), but they do trust ‘people like them’. Digital communications allows company to connect with the people that matter to them on this personal level, creating brand loyalty, word-of-mouth endorsement and benefit of the doubt should things go awry.
There is also an important internal communications element at play here. It is easy to forget that, on one level, companies do not exist. People exist. Which means that companies only exist in units of one. Companies which genuinely work out loud empower their employees to speak for themselves, representing the company or its products in their own way, removed from the traditional corporate speak. When this works well it is immensely powerful, creating ties that bind with the key audiences.
Even those companies which do not want to work out loud find that people are increasingly listening. Not passively, as before, but actively, critically, enthusiastically. Those who embrace this will suffer a little and gain a lot.
Nick Andrews is FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice Leader for EMEA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.