The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: May 2012

The space created by humanitarian crises, conflict, revolution or disaster is always rapidly filled by actors of many persuasions – governments, belligerents, the ‘people, the media, the international community, NGOs, specialist, the military and others.  And within this space, communication, its audience and, increasingly, its technology, are fundamental to achieving objectives, whatever they may be, from the defeat of an enemy to a shift in political culture to saving lives and alleviating suffering.

In this space, as in everyday human existence, communication or, more correctly, information has a currency, and it could be argued that in this space, the value of this currency skyrockets.  Indeed when the stakes are high, information is undoubtedly power.

But is that power, to do good or bad, effectively and efficiently used?  Can we, given the utter complexity of the human creations of such environments, ever hope to harness its power.  One need only look to events in the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Tehran, to see communicative power unleashed, but is it a case of unbridled brute force of communication, catalysed by technology but not sparked by it?  And as such, is equal brute force being used, literally and metaphorically, to stymie or dilute the informational tidal wave?

To fathom the nature of this power, one can look to several mechanisms of communication, from the ‘hidden persuaders’ of advertising through to the idea of ‘Facebook revolutions’, from the slippery techniques of the snake oil salesman to grassroots activism.  But it is undoubtedly the latest generation of, not only, technology but its users that are really multiplying the power, but not necessarily the control, of communication and information.

The Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, recently pointed out: “Ten years ago, the number of people who had access to the Internet was 361 million; today it’s 2 billion. In the year 2000, 300,000 people in Pakistan were using cell phones; today it’s 100 million. You can’t say technology doesn’t matter.”  The sheer exponential advance in numbers is staggering and its influence, as a capability not an ideal, is changing the way people, from Berlin to Benghazi, are utilising and succumbing to informational power.   Take Palestine, a fulcrum of power plays.  Today’s youth, as individuals, are just as their fathers and mothers were, with the same wishes, problems, drives and angst but there are significant differences.  Unlike previous generations, they are collectively informed and, crucially, networked.    The public sphere, from Ramallah to Rotterdam, is morphing, and rather rapidly.

Africa and other parts of the developing world, that public sphere is changing rapidly, thanks to “digital leapfrogging”, whereby areas which have had no or limited analogue communication systems are being catapulted into the digital age.  No longer subject to the linear progression of technology, these areas have embraced digital, especially mobile telephone, methods.  From Khartoum to Kabul, people who have never had access to basic communication equipment are making their first telephone calls and text messaging on hand-held devices similar to, or even more advanced than , those available to subscribers in the developed world.

This technology is a catalyst – providing the capability to do what has already been done for eons vastly quicker.  Yet, as with chemical catalysts, it does not actually become part of the reaction, it does not form part of the final compound.  As with the current ‘Facebook revolutions’, the initial constituents of grievance, repression, anger, resilience, intellect and determination are not changed by a catalyst, technology, but the rate of constituent reaction is raised dramatically.  Catalyst by themselves are often pretty dormant, inert, as it is with communication technology – useless without a human – but place it amongst people with unheeded desires, needs and drives, then the fireworks start.

Whether one subscribes to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘it’s all over-hyped’ position or Clay Shirky’s ‘here comes everybody’ perspective, it is without doubt that the already violent, unpredictable and cluttered space in which the aforementioned actors find themselves is itself undergoing seismic shocks through this catalysis.  From Madrid to Mogadishu, technology catalysed tectonic shifts are now endemic in the strategic communication environment.  Ignorance is bliss but futile; haphazard attempts to reclaim a degree of power or control often fail or even backfire; debate and cogitation fuel the coffers of communication conference organisers.  But honest, gritty and tough grappling with this catalytic effect, requiring an open mind, dogged determination and a great thirst for answers, is unavoidable if communication is ever again to be effectively and efficiently utilised by those who practice it.

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When it comes to dealing with the media, spokespersons do handle most for larger companies and in most companies few devote time/funds for training management and leadership to handle the media.

But, in today’s information environment, where the public and stakeholders demand increased accountability, especially of those industries who ‘fly close to the wind’ (finance, petrochem, automotive, aviation, defence, utilities, pharma etc – where (a) there are utter public reliance, safety, wellbeing aspects and (b)  if things go wrong they have the potential to go very wrong) – trotting out the spokesperson has its limits – as BP, Toyota, the Prudential, British Airways, most banks over the last eighteen months etc, will prove.  Spokespersons are utterly invaluable in the day-to-day dealings with the media, but most know that using the ‘big guns’ or subject matter experts (SMEs) is a necessity in maintaining a fresh, credible and mature relationship with the media.

Further, media relations do not exist in a vacuum.  Any successful organization integrates its communication functions – PR, advertising, marketing – and has strong buy-in from leadership who provide sound guidance and fully appreciate that communications have the ability to contribute to organizational goals way beyond the mere promotion of products or services.  As such communication management, and thereby media relations, is a crucial aspect of organizational development (as the widely respected Grunig ‘Excellence’ Model of Effective Organizations attest – straight out of organizational theory (systems)), just as communications has found its way into the dominant coalition of corporate boardrooms over the last decade or so.  Some have learnt that media handling is not and should not be a bolt-on.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace should not skimp on PR and media relations.  And part of the latter involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ is folly as has been shown time and time again – management at the very least need to be engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

Of course, not all organizations, will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But, many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can become, rapidly, very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  By this time it may be too late to consider training.

Those caught in a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The bottom line is that while it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the spokesperson(s) to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and SMEs, is asking for trouble.


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As the debacle of Libya and the international community’s dire response to it rumbles on, questions are raised over the role of strategic communication and its utility.

As many begin to really appreciate the value of strategic communication, empirically studied in RAND’s “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” and found to be a highly important pillar in a multipronged approach, capturing the essence of strategic communication appears to be as slippery a prospect as ever.

Its utility is laden with difficult issues, not least from the starting definition which is variously described in different fashions depending on who one talks to, which government or organisation they represent, the particular context and the phase of the moon.  But the inherent issues remain locked solid.

The question of how strategic communication informs and guides policy formation, support objectives and permeates deep-held beliefs and values can generate considerable communication in itself.  How and the degree to which strategic communication is managed, especially within an information-rich and technologically dizzying environment, at all levels is debated and scrutinised on both sides of the Atlantic.  Deciding the mechanisms, both organic and external, to employ equally can invite headaches and ethical dilemmas.

In multilateral organisations, abutting national and non-governmental entities, synergy of communicative action – considered a mainstay of the strategic communication ‘profession’ – can be but a glint in the dreamy-eyed politico, yearning for some coherency of message and consistency of action in order to close the ‘say-do’ gap.  And then, even if a concert of communication is glimpsed, internal machinations and concerns over domestic public opinion often prevail to muddy an already turbulent stream of collective consciousness.  Even within the major publics, diverse interests drive the agendas, colliding and careening off each other, refusing either to be harnessed within or at, sometimes utterly violent, odds with strategic objectives.

The information environment itself poses considerable and rapidly evolving challenges.  Not only do domestic audiences create world views, opinions, attitudes and behaviour motivated through ever more multi-spectral channels, and increasingly contribute to those mediums, but publics in far-flung places across the globe, places rife with geo-political angst, do so equally, often with little understood effect and consequences.  Events in the Middle East have indicated the catalysing effect of such technology – even NATO are now actively cogitating over this.

The very nature of human interaction and collective capability is evolving swiftly, in which the ways in which we cooperate, contribute, co-opt, consult and create are subject to new dynamics.  As such, the manner of top-down hierarchy is giving way to flattened networked linkages, diffusing power from traditional nodes to looser organisms.  And the feedback loop in these new dynamics is growing in volume, ignored at one’s peril – strategic communication can no longer be a one-way street.  This is all occurring within our own settings and within disparate, distant and devolved social entities, with profound effect.

In the early 21st century we are only just beginning to grapple withthese issues and realise the complexities of a vortex of new politics, new technologies and new societies,  all subject to and fonts of masses of information.  An understanding of that information, its utility and its management is now an imperative, utterly essential and fundamental to any who wish to operate in this vortex.

Put simply, communication is defined by the response you get.  In today’s complex geo-political environment, strategic communication is defined by how you get the response needed.