The Communications Revolution is Now an Insurrection

Forbes 1 week ago

On the unseasonably warm morning of March 4, 1801, as Thomas Jefferson prepared for his first (and the nascent nation’s fourth) presidential inaugural, outgoing President John Adams chose to skip the swearing-in of his successor and rival. Instead, Adams was in a horse-drawn carriage on his way back home to Braintree, Massachusetts, to reunite with his wife Abigail, whom he had not seen in nearly a year.

Miss his wife though he might, it was Adams’ bitter differences with Jefferson that compelled him to leave Washington, D.C., before the most portentous of events took place in the young country – the peaceful passage of power, an event not taken for granted in 1801 and still not taken for granted two centuries later.

The reason these founding fathers could no longer abide one another was their dramatically different views of democracy. Adams, the Federalist, did not trust the masses and believed in a representative form of government. Jefferson, the Republican-Democrat, had more faith in “the people”; in the debate over the First Amendment, the Jeffersonian view carried the day. The cure for harmful speech, Jefferson and his adherents argued, was more speech and greater reliance on vox populi.

The Jeffersonians may have won that battle but the other side won the war.

What we learned in high school civics class was a whitewash. America was never a “democracy.” We lived in a “republic,” where our representatives ultimately made decisions for us. From the electoral college, which sought to buffer the voters’ choice for president, to indirect elections to the U.S. Senate (through 1913), we have operated in a republic. Even the power of party conventions over primaries was essentially the rule of the day until Jimmy Carter came along in 1976.

The Internet has changed the norms of our politics, our society, and our businesses. Presidential campaigns are now entertainment (and the last election was won by a reality-TV star). Proxy season increasingly represents old House elections in terms of coverage and budgets. Internet shaming is replacing judges and juries.

We have misunderstood the communications revolution, focusing our attention on the latest technology – the hardware and the software – not what the technology means to capitalism and democracy. It is not about how we receive information; it is how we share it.

No longer limited to engaged dinner-party chatter and the mailing to friends and family of a favorite article, we now have the power to control the national or even global conversation. Virtually every major policy debate now emanates from the grassroots, not Wall Street or K Street. #MeToo, fracking, global warming, sugar, GMOs, the Keystone pipeline. Go ahead: name a major issue that hasn’t come from the grassroots.

The power of corporate (and nation-states’) communications to control the narrative is gone. No longer are the four horsemen of communications – PR, advertising, lobbying and PAC funding – a formula for success. “We did what is in the best interest of our shareholders and our customers,” is no longer a viable holding statement. The change has been extraordinary and swift.

This near-instant transformation from a republic to a democracy is almost as overwhelming as the transition from a monarchy to a republic. Yet how many companies have radically changed their enterprise risk management (ERM), decision-making hierarchy, advertising and marketing, litigation communications, and branding in a way that is forward-looking and incorporates a radical change in how our democracy and capitalism work? At the very least, no longer is it the third rail for companies to take political or even religious positions. The marketplace now expects companies to have a three-dimensional personality that is deeper than a promise and an advertisement.

In the wake of this profound transformation, what changes should corporations institute, not only to their communications operations, but to the duties of their CEOs and boards of directors?

It’s a big agenda that too many companies fail to appreciate. On the strategic front, it boils down to embracing three global factors. Anything less is whack-a-mole.

Speed: It is no secret that everything moves much faster today. But therein lies the trap. You can’t move any faster. You must now be proactive, instead of reactive, as most corporate communications have tended to be.

Companies need to proactively remake their ERM so that social media trends are identified well in advance and reasonable critics are singled out and incorporated into strategy; risk trends need to be reported up through management and holistically discussed.

On the tactical front, corporate communications divisions need to consider such speed-driven changes as:

  • Overhauling the capabilities of their social media and online marketing teams (you’ve got to stay on top of every “new” development in that perpetually evolving field) so that you see nascent patterns as they evolve and can make decisions about if and how to respond or re-position. Lord Cornwallis saw the American troops merging on Yorktown for days. What he didn’t realize was that his escape route by the sea had been compromised and eliminated.
  • Recognizing the importance of enlisting allies and building relationships with potential reasonable critics (remember, the messenger is more important than the message). There is no better way to change minds than to have a reasonable critic make your own points. But you can’t do that unless you know them before you need them; and,
  • Engaging the CEO and other senior officers in concerted community outreach, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and smart thought leadership. CSR needs to be strategic, not just philanthropic.

If things go sideways in a hurry – and that’s the only way things go sideways these days – you’ll need the goodwill that such outreach engenders.

Moreover, CEOs and their boards need to fundamentally change their approach to internal dialogue and communications. Big suite executives need to repeatedly invite discussions – as do board members.

It is not enough to say, “My door is always open.” Power intimidates, and most companies had someone aware of the emerging crisis but were too afraid to become its champion.

If you haven’t altered your approach to ERM in the last couple of years and streamlined and safeguarded the upward mobility of communications, you are not prepared for the democratization of capitalism.

Transparency: We all loved “transparency” until we didn’t. One hundred percent of our companies will be hacked, no matter where they’re located. It is not just corporate espionage and sloppy cyber hygiene but now a nation-state phenomenon (see the Gerasimov Doctrine) and a monetizing phenomenon (see Facebook, Google, Amazon, et al.). Plan for a world where it is all (muckraker) Upton Sinclair all the time. Everyone is watching how the sausage is made – and all of your company’s critics stayed at a Holiday Inn last night; they’re overnight (and snarky) experts.

How have you radically changed the way you communicate internally when it is all external communications now?

Trust: Americans of my generation came of age in the last great diminution of trust, which took place amid the despair of Vietnam. Where many Americans are right now is even worse; it’s beginning to feel like the complete breakdown that took place in the pre-Civil War era of the 1850s. Anger is so profound that we operate in narrower and narrower tribes.

Use the wrong words and a portion of your audience immediately shuts down and stops listening. Some start attacking.

Do you know your tribes? Apple does. They were the first computer company to put their logo on the outside of the laptop. They knew their buyers knew what they bought. They also knew their buyers wanted others to know what “religion” – Apple religion – they were.

Do you know what you are really selling? It isn’t just the brand anymore. Michelin is selling safety; Apple is selling creativity and – at least compared to its peers – privacy (though how much remains to be seen), which in some ways has become the ultimate luxury; Starbucks is selling lifestyle; Prius is selling environmental consciousness; Chevy Trucks are selling rugged individualism. If you don’t know what you are selling and to which tribes you are selling, you will have no army of support in a crisis. Even Napoleon Bonaparte could not march on Moscow without an army.

Sears invented the Internet with its catalogues in 1897. Avon invented the first virtual offices with its door-to-door sales operation. Radio Shack invented something approximating the Genius Bar 30 years before Apple. RIM popularized the portable phone. Blockbuster created the home entertainment revolution. Now they’re all as gone as John Adams’ philosophy of republican government.

As Jeff Bezos of Amazon says, “The disrupter will soon be the disrupted.” If he is losing sleep over the revolution, what should you be doing?

# # #

Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK. He is a frequent television, radio, online, and print commentator.


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