The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: New Media

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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Millennia ago, huge lumps of rock with exotic names such as Gondwana, Vaalbara and Laurasia bumped around and the Himalayas, Alps and Andes popped up, changing the very nature and condition of life on planet Earth.  It took a while but the results are magnificent and you can’t exactly miss them – the results of monumental but subtle tectonic shifts.

Likewise, the societies and environments within which we live, breathe, work and sleep, are undergoing shifts of similar proportion, and although the visibility of these shifts is less clear, the results may well be as massive as the impact of mountain ranges and deep sea valleys of their tectonic forebears.

The convergence of the digital information technology and the continuing dominance of the market , have over the last decade or so provided a vehicle for decentralized organizational capacity, not only at a local level but on a global scale.  This phenomena has encouraged a new global economy: an  informational economy, in which, as Manuel Castells, guru of modern culture, states, “the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale” becomes a reality.

This economy is reliant upon the capacity of organizations to create, analyse, process, navigate, disseminate, manage and apply information in accordance with the desires and drives of the market.  This is especially true of finance, where information is a critical resource, but increasingly the information economy and the ability to act collaboratively using information is making inroads into manufacturing, design and research.  The value of the potential of information economy processes is the degree of utter synergy which can be brought about through mass use of know-how and the management of that.  Such a fine example is Linux, whereby, simply put, one organization, using a collaborative informational process enabled through ICT, has achieved what no one single conventional company could ever hope to achieve, producing output which conventional human resources, financial and time constraints prevent.

Successful organizations in this economy are those capable of generating, managing and utilising information efficiently; and are flexible enough to respond to rapid changes in the economic environment, increasingly forced by institutional, cultural, societal  and technological change. Collaborative or networked enterprise increasingly play a part in securing organizations’ roles in the economy. Connectivity also contributes to overall performance, along with how well the objectives of its networked and collaborative components are aligned with the goals of the enterprise itself.  At heart, survival in the competitive informational economy demands constant information driven innovation.

Of the environment within which these organizations operate, or the society with whom they interact, several tectonic shifts are taking place, concerning labour, perception, space and time.

These things take time but before you know it ...

Labour is becoming a global resource and, as Castells discriminates, is breaking up into two spheres: generic labour, and informational producers. Labour markets, no longer restricted by powerful unions, have new kinds of workers (women, youth, immigrants), new work environments (offices, high-tech industry) and a new organizational structures (the network or collaborative enterprise). Flexitime and temporary employment have also changed the workplace.

Perception is also being altered as networks, providing increased access to data, and readily available technology allow the convergence of electronic data – text, audio and video – to provide a viruality of perception, a confluence of opinionated, and therefore biased, reality.  Further, technology allows the easy ‘mashup’ and altering of such data, changing narratives.  The result is that ‘reality’ is metamorphosed through network filters and electronic data forms the real data of experience, from mainstream media through to Second Life.

The nature of space and time is also evolving. Where once power resulted from presence at a location, movement or flow is becoming congruent with that power, Society is increasingly structured around flows of information influenced reactions, creating rapid real world reactions out of information derived ideas, opinions and decisions.  A logic and meaning is enveloped within networks.  Time is increasingly speeded up – product life-cycles shortened, news dissemination almost real-time – but also increasingly, perceived sequences and rhythms are being interrupted or shuffled in perception.

Of course networks and collaborative ventures are nothing new but in the 21st century these are beginning to pervade entire social structures, as networks, as well as their participants, take on the status of societal actors  Presence or absence in the network, and the activity of one network toward another, determine social domination, performance, and change.  The complete and utter effectiveness of networks may be questioned, especially given the ability of the human element to be empowered through collaborative or networked activity – the real world still places legitimate constraints – but that it is changing the way that nation states operate is clear.  Information is now a primary currency but is no longer the preserve of and controlled by the state, presenting challenges to the governance and democratic process, as the informed citizen, increasingly either globally networked – of the Net –  or locally entrenched – of the Self,  accesses masses  of time-shifted, altered, biased, framed and constantly flowing data, either over wide spectrums or selectively tunnel-visioned.

Through these complex prisms, “in a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.”  Like it or not, networks are causing tectonic shifts that the San Andreas fault would be proud of.


Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.


Red Cross getting addictive

We noticed Rohit Bhargava’s list of the Top 15 Marketing & Social Media Trends To Watch In 2011 – some interesting concepts, a few of which we’d like to point to, considering their possibilities within communications campaigns.  The main list covers:

  1. Likeonomics
  2. Approachable Celebrity
  3. Desperate Simplification
  4. Essential Integration
  5. Rise of Curation
  6. Visualized Data
  7. Crowdsourced Innovation
  8. Instant PR & Customer Service
  9. App-fication of the Web
  10. Reimagining Charity
  11. Employees As Heroes
  12. Locationcasting
  13. Brutal Transparency
  14. Addictive Randomness
  15. Culting Of Retail

Let’s take a few an expand:

Desperate simplification – Data overload is increasingly hampering any coherent and strong messaging as we are all bombarded with information on several platforms.  People will congregate around those tools which give them a degree of control of this deluge  and provide simplification.  Such platforms will be the iPad (and the myriad of apps), tumblr, animoto, amazon, and maybe quora.

Funny and viral … and well integrated

Essential integration –  With this almost limitless number of platforms, the holy grail will increasingly become integration of campaigns, often screwed up my departmental infighting, agencies working to subtly different objectives and downright laziness or lack of creativity.  Last year’s viral phenomena of the Old Spice Guy worked not only because of its creative content but die to its seamless integration and placement across different platforms.

Content Curation –  Increasingly aggregators or curators, such as paper.li, are becoming seen as effective filters and hubs for information centred upon a campaign, product or idea.  These can act as effectively draw the audience, as a trusted and simple source.

Addictive randomness:  Ever found yourself just clicking to see what’s next – addicted to the random nature of internet available information?  The phenomena is not researched but there’s something there.  How can it be used to push the boundaries of a campaign?  The American Red Cross provides a great example

Recognizing an issue and getting dirty early

Brutal transparency –  Many lessons have been learned throughout several corporate crises over 2010.  One is a more proactive approach to issue management in which painfully a honest approach to negativity is seen to outweigh the costs of reactive efforts after the event.  Rohit cites the Domino Pizza and Southwest Airlines campaigns to raise themselves above the others in this regard.  The whole idea is an advance on our mantra of ‘Get dirty early’.

This is just a smattering – things are moving at a blistering pace.  Keep up now!


The Week put forth a pithy summation of Robert Cyran’s (Reuters BreakingViews) perspective on privacy, in which he holds that privacy has been the main casualty of 2010.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been crowned Person of the Year by Time Magazine, and Wkileaks boss Julian Assange, has topped the associated reader poll, notes Robert Cyran. Both have “uncommon levels of self-belief and superior coding abilities” – and both are leading “the technological assault on privacy”. There are obvious differences in scale and intent between a social networking business with more than 500 million users and a small, non-profit which uncovers “censored injustices”. But the two outfits share a devotion to the idea that society benefits when more is made public. This may, however, be their “golden hour”. The costs of bringing formerly private things to light are becoming increasingly evident: even the relatively benign-seeming Zuckerberg is likely to face calls for far greater accountability from Facebook’s mass of users, if not regulators, one day. Whatever constraints are eventually imposed on either model, however, the genie is out of the bottle. The chief “casualty” of 2010 was privacy.

Enough said.

Note that the readers went for Assange not Zuckerberg ... hmm, interesting.


Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

No Deepwater Horizons here?

But the trials and tribulations of these global conglomerates seem far away from the dreamy spires of Cambridge, the tranquil Fens or the placid waters of the Cam.

Yet, as the successful companies of this region ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.

Of course, not on the same scale – there are few Deepwater Horizons across the Fens – but potentially devastating nonetheless.  The poor media handling of a recall of vital computer components embedded in a critical system or medicines due questionable research can sink a small business providing these products.  This is the volatile and dangerous nature of the information environment in the 21st century.  Referring the media to the marketing department just won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, anecdotal research of Cambridgeshire-based companies has revealed that predominantly communication issues are referred to … the marketing department.

The demands of such crises require people – real people not just twitter handles or blog aliases – to stand up and explain, inform, justify, defend and educate, and to do it quickly.  Not doing so merely adds fuel to the fire and doing it badly lobs a grenade in after that fuel.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ or ‘that’s something for marketing’ is sheer folly, as has been shown time and time again.  Management, at the very least, need to be fully 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.

But why bother?  Is it really worthwhile getting worked up about this? Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

These little things make traditional media skills even more vital.

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a torrent of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  Further, the coalition government is rightly forging ahead with ideas for digital Britain, including major policies in opening up local media and, not least, local television.  Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

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 do not skimp on crisis communications and media relations.  This 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.  It also necessitates comprehensive crisis communications planning beforehand.

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 rapidly become very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  The speed at which this can happen can be breathtaking and by this time it may be too late to consider training. Those caught in such a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, the bottom line?   While it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the marketing department or, if you’re lucky, a spokesperson to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and subject matter experts in front of the camera, is plain asking for trouble.  Just ask Tony Hayward.


Isn’t technology wonderful?  In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content.  In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre.  Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).

As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted.  Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast.  If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them.  Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times.  In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.

But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR)  Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production.  Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc  are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data.  One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!).  Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.

Wow .. you can do all sorts with these things!

The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere.  The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control).  That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart.  But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting.  They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness).  The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention.  (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience.  Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.

It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it.  They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.

Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release.  But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).