The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Taking cerebral short cuts

Heuristics – we’re all doing it every day – basing our responses to information or stimuli on experience as opposed to cold, hard logic.  It’s the brain’s way of taking a short cut to save processing time.  Cognitive heuristics rely on several aspects, not least, representativeness and availability, and can play a huge part in our, or an audience’s, processing of information.  And that can be pretty important in a media interview.

Representativeness is the mechanism by which the brain makes inferences about the probability of statements being true based upon how it fits with the receiver’s existing data, often responsible for stereotyping.  As an expert in their field, a spokesperson will have much more available data and may assume that a message or statement is rationally understandable.  But the audience may not have such access.  As such, in message construction it is crucial that the audience’s available data, and thereby possible opinion, be accounted for. Equally important is considering how that data is informing that opinion.

It's actually cheap and nasty but strangely tastes like an '82 Claret

The simplest example of this is the wine test.  Even the most experienced oenologists (that’s wine experts to you and me) can be fooled by transferring good, expensive wine into the bottles of cheap, average wine and vice versa (even easier over a large group, but that’s another story).  That’s because the all the available data, not just the taste, is influencing the outcome.

Availability can also change rapidly.  For example, after a major aircraft accident, general public perception of the safety or risks of flying changes significantly, despite cool logic and probability calculations indicating otherwise.   That’s because the availability of date ‘suggesting’ heightened risk is increased and the heuristic process short cuts logic, contributing to the cerebral outcome.

So, two lessons here.  One: don’t assume that just because you’ve got all the correct data, the audience has access to that data – this is one of the cardinal sins of ego-centric communication.  They may have access to different, even incorrect, data.  Your message has to account for that (and remember, whereas good old-fashioned facts and figures are great for print interviews, they probably won’t survive the broadcast editing process unless you can sell them as vital and interesting).  Two: try to access this data, understand what data networks are operating (not just what’s in the papers or on TV – the audience is getting much more sophisticated than that), so that your message can fit, support or subtly rebut this data.

All media interview preparation must focus on the audience.  But it’s not just knowing about who they are, but also how they think (i.e. heuristically*) and where they get their information from.

*  But even then, segments of the audience will be more rational than others, more emotions- or morality-based than others – men from Mars, women from Venus and all that.

The tectonic shifts of networks

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: An Issue-rich Environment

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.

Strategic Communication – What’s that all about?

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.

PR today – it’s just not cricket

What, with wikileaks, phone hackin’ journalists, social media on the interweb, a new UK Prime ministerial spin meister and things called quora, it’s all enough to give you a migraine.  Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and occasionally it is good for the soul to hark back to more tranquil times, just as Simon Hoggart of the Guardian did recently:

“Isn’t it a reflection of modern times that the prime minister’s appointment of a spin doctor has attracted as much attention as any new cabinet minister might? Rightly so – Craig Oliver will probably be more influential than almost all of them.

Only one kind of spinning here ...

More than 60 years ago Clement Attlee had to be persuaded to install a Press Association ticker in Downing Street and only agreed when he was told it would allow him to follow the cricket scores.

One day Francis Williams, his press secretary, gave his usual briefing to the lobby. Later Attlee exclaimed in astonishment: “There’s an account of this morning’s cabinet on my cricket machine!” He didn’t even know what his spin doctor did.

I think that, on the whole, that was a good thing, and we were better off.”

Hear, hear!

So what?

“So what?”

It’s a question that is under-used in any media campaign.  People utterly involved in their work, be it selling microchips or helping others, are often pushing out press releases, statements, calling press conferences to tell the world their ‘news’, only to be often dumbfounded when the media fail to report it.  That’s because they often don’t ask the “so what?” question in terms of news factors.  There are factors which make news, which raise an eyebrow, which journalistic radars lock on to and which the general public wake up to. It’s pretty obvious stuff but when down in the weeds working on a product or a campaign a myopia can strike preventing people from understanding, in media terms, what will ‘fly’ and what won’t.  Before sending that press release or calling that press conference, just check for news worthiness.  If the story doesn’t flick any of the switches below (edited from a version at cybercollege.com), it’s failed the “so what?” test.

1.  Timeliness:  News is what’s new. An afternoon raid on a drugs den may warrant a live ENG report during the 6 p.m. news. However, tomorrow, unless there are major new developments, the same story will probably not be important enough to mention.

2.  Proximity: If 15 people are killed in your hometown, your local TV station will undoubtedly consider it news. But if 15 people are killed in Tokyo, Tipperary, Timisoara, or some other distant place you’ve never heard of, it will probably pass without notice. But there are exceptions.

3.  Exceptional quality: One exception centres on how the people died. If the people in Timisoara were killed because of a bus or car accident, this would not be nearly as newsworthy as if they died from an earthquake or stings from “killer bees,” feared insects that have now invaded France.

Exceptional quality refers to how uncommon an event is. A man getting a job as a music conductor is not news—unless that man is blind.

4.  Possible future impact: The killer bee example illustrates another news element: possible future impact. The fact that the killer bees are now in France and may eventually be a threat to people watching the news makes the story much more newsworthy.

5.  Prominence: The 15 deaths in Timisoara might also go by unnoticed by the local media unless someone prominent was on the bus—possibly a movie star or a well-known politician. If a soap star gets married, it’s news; if John Smith, your next-door neighbour, gets married, it probably isn’t.

You may find it exciting but will others?

6.  Conflict: Conflict in its many forms has long held the interest of observers. The conflict may be physical or emotional. It can be open, overt conflict, such as a civil uprising against police authority, or it may be ideological conflict between political candidates.

The conflict could be as simple as a person standing on his principles and spending a year fighting city hall over a parking citation. In addition to “people against people” conflict, there can be conflict with wild animals, nature, the environment, or even the frontier of space.

7.  Numbers: The more people involved in a news event, be it a demonstration or a tragic accident, the more newsworthy the story is. Likewise, the number of people affected by the event, whether it’s a new health threat or a new tax ruling, the more newsworthy the story is.

8.  Consequence: The fact that a car hit a power pylon isn’t news, unless, as a consequence, power is lost throughout a city for several hours. The fact that a computer virus found its way into a computer system might not be news until it bankrupts a business, shuts down a telephone system, or endangers lives by destroying crucial medical data at a hospital.

9.  Human interest: Human-interest stories are generally soft news. Examples would be a baby beauty contest, a person whose pet happens to be a nine-foot boa constrictor, or a man who makes a cart so that his two-legged dog can move around again.

On a slow news day even a story of fire fighters getting a cat out of a tree might make a suitable story. Human-interest angles can be found in most hard news stories. A flood will undoubtedly have many human-interest angles: a lost child reunited with its parents after two days, a boy who lost his dog, or families returning to their mud-filled homes.

10.  Pathos: The fact that people like to hear about the misfortunes of others can’t be denied. Seeing or hearing about such things commonly elicits feelings of pity, sorrow, sympathy, and compassion. Some call these stories “tear jerkers.”

Examples are the child who is now all alone after his parents were killed in a car accident, the elderly woman who just lost her life savings to a con artist, or the blind man whose seeing-eye dog was poisoned.

This category isn’t just limited to people. How about horses that were found neglected and starving, or the dog that sits at the curb expectantly waiting for its master to return from work each day, even though the man was killed in an accident weeks ago.

11.  Shock Value: An explosion in a factory has less shock value if it was caused by gas leak than if it was caused by a terrorist. The story of a six year-old boy who shot his mother with a revolver found in a bedside drawer has more shock (and therefore news) value than if same woman died of a heart attack.

Both shock value and the titillation factor (below) are well known to the tabloid press. The lure of these two factors is also related to some stories getting inordinate attention, such as the sordid details of a politician’s or evangelist’s affair—which brings us to the final point.

12.  Titillation: This factor primarily involves sex and is commonly featured—some would say exploited—during rating periods.

It’s a simple question – “so what?”

Brutal, essential and desperate – communications trends

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!