Hello emotion, goodbye Mr. Spock

May 2, 2014

By: John Onoda

To me, corporate communications has always been a field where “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock could excel because it requires rigorously rational, strategic thinking. It’s a science that involves pragmatically balancing stakeholder perceptions and responses in ways that support business outcomes.

Of course, emotions are taken into account, but mostly as one of many stakeholder considerations or as the desired outcomes of programs designed to engender customer loyalty, employee enthusiasm, community pride and the like.

But I think social media may be bringing about a paradigm shift in a way that may disadvantage the coolly logical Mr. Spocks working in corporate communications. If current trends continue, informing target audiences or engaging them in online discussions will no longer be sufficient; corporate communicators will have to find ways to touch the emotions of target audiences. Doing this will require drawing on feelings nearly as much as critical thinking.

Why is this happening?

Because social media measurement is moving from the periphery to the core of how success in communications is determined; and because emotions trigger social media participation. People post images on Facebook or videos on YouTube because they have had an emotional connection to the subject matter. Often that emotion is love – of family, friends, animals, sports teams, food, music, the arts and other sources of gratification. Sometimes the emotion is outrage, compassion, pride or anger.

In general, the more strongly social media users feel about something, the more likely they are to make this known via digital outlets. Activists of various stripes – usually no friends of Big Business – have a disproportionate share of voice through social media because they care enough to engage at a high level.

The problem is that traditional corporate communications doesn’t have much to do with emotions, so it is likely to make a poor showing if judged by its social media impact.

Our profession has been using social media metrics for some time in relation to marketing campaigns and, to a lesser extent, in relation to crisis communications and issues management; but over the coming years it could continue to gain ground in corporate areas where it is barely applied at this time.

For example, as social media becomes integral to internal communications, the success of HR communications initiatives may be measured by how often company workers comment about them on Facebook or LinkedIn, or tweet images of people high-fiving in their cubicles over the new 401(k) plan. Sounds far-fetched, right? But that’s because corporate communicators disseminate information about benefits, training and performance reviews through dry, traditional means, never expecting any response from the target audience.

Who thinks about exciting or galvanizing employees with everyday internal announcements? Who imagines investors posting selfies in response to a financial report? Who expects activists to tweet praises when the company announces the most recent philanthropic donation?

We don’t expect emotional responses to workaday corporate communications so we retain a traditional mindset on how to communicate normally dry topics. Oh, we might have someone make an announcement on video so we can post it both internally and externally; and we might have some executive put out a perfunctory tweet giving it a mention, but this is just pushing traditional content through new channels. The emotional quotient remains unchanged.

If the success of traditional corporate communications is measured in terms of social media activity, won’t we have to find ways to make information more meaningful, to position our messages in contexts that excite and inspire? Won’t we have to teach our leaders and representatives to talk in ways that are much more authentic, accessible and human? Won’t we have to think beyond the dry corporate confines in which most of us labor and try to connect our work with all the exciting things going on outside our business cocoons?

And won’t that actually be a good thing?

Sorry, Spock. You’re out of here.

John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.