I’m giving this post over to two friends, who have gone through an experience that was uncomfortable at best. Sarah and Shelina have dealt with an issue that they’ve found demeaning, not just to themselves but to how women are seen in general. Their views have been called out. Even when they’ve been asked to share their views, the way they were asked felt wrong, even downright aggressive. The issue has been talked about by another person on the radio. Here’s Sarah’s and Shelina’s time to talk over the issue, in a safe space. Listen to what they have to say, and let’s all do more to listen online with the sake of understanding the other.
It’s been seven days since all the optimism, the hangovers, and the excessive fireworks (at least in the Gulf). So, given our bubbles of hope were burst and then shot down in flames on the morning of the second day of this year, what should we be looking forward to over the coming 12 months?
There’s been some brilliant prediction blogs, including this one from Stephen Waddington which is as comprehensive as it gets. But I wanted to focus in on two big issues that we are going to have to deal with, both in the Middle East and globally.
Fake News Campaigns will proliferate
Fake news isn’t new – it’s been around since humans have been able to talk, write and read. What’s so special about now is that, thanks to the internet and our own inability to question what we see being shared by friends and family, it’s easier than ever to create fake news. There’s even a new breed of firms, “Black PR” agencies, who are willing to set up fake sites that look like news portals, create fake news stories, and then spread them online on social media via bots.
Given the state of politics around the world, with nationalism and xenophobia just two of a dozen negative trends that are driving agendas, it’s no surprise that news is being manipulated by politicians, to both boost their own profiles and smear opponents. Buzzfeed has put out a smart news piece on disinformation for hire.
My concern is what will happen when fake news and the people behind these campaigns begin to target companies. We’ve already seen some of this in the Gulf, given the region’s politics. There have been targeted campaigns against national brands, including airliners, banks and pharmaceutical companies. I feel this is only the start, and we’re going to see more fake news campaigns which are designed to blackmail. How many firms will pay up rather than face a barrage of negativity which, although fake, may convince others to stay away from the brand?
Will your social media people are able to respond quickly, spot the fakes, and mobilize your followers? Do you know what’s going on when it comes to fake content, how to spot it, and who is behind it? What surprises me is how few practitioners in my part of the world are actively researching this phenomenon. I’m seeing more work being done by academics like Marc Owen Jones around issues such as bots, trolls, and fake news campaigns. If you’re a public relations professional, please do your homework and start educating yourself about these issues before they impact you.
Public Activism will be everywhere
The second big theme for 2020 will be public activism. There’s been a strong trend towards employee activism over the past couple of years, especially in the US and with sectors such as tech (just look at Google). As people give up on their politicians doing the right thing, they’re going to increasingly call out corporations.
This trend for public activism is going to happen globally. I’m increasingly seeing this in India, given what’s happening there with the new Citizenship Amendment Act. And we’ll also see this around issues such as the environment (just look at Australia).
This rise of citizen activism is going to especially strain organizations that stay on the sidelines or organizations whose ownership is in the hands of an individual with strong views.
What employers need to do is 1) be much better at listening to sentiment, and 2) empathizing with views that are distinct from those held by management. There are far too many tone-deaf leaders out there, and they’re going to drag their company’s brands down with them unless they change how they engage with stakeholders.
Given these two trends, my one hope is that we start to prioritize listening as a key communications skill. It may not sound as sexy as content creation, or artificial intelligence, but the good old-fashioned practice of listening may just save your organization/client from the biggest reputational crises in 2020.
Houston, we have a problem. And unlike this last sentence, which was transmitted clearly from space and the Apollo command module to NASA back in 1970, we as a function are not getting the three basic tenets of communications right.
Did you recently read about the WHO decision to make Zimbabwe’s President Dr Mugabe a goodwill ambassador. Or the NHS AirBnB concept to free up beds? I once though that such headlines would be the purview of April Fools or the Onion website.
I’m frequently finding that organizations are not listening to their stakeholders, and are making decisions which, in hindsight, turn out to be poorly thought through and which do reputational damage.
Part of the reason why we’ve gotten so bad at listening as organizations because we don’t engage with anyone outside our offices. It seems to be a trend for far too many communicators to be glued to their laptops or smartphones and not actually getting out enough to meet face to face with real people.
This trend would also explain why communicators are pushing out content of their choosing rather than actually responding to the needs to their audiences, be they media, consumers or any other group. I’m constantly being told by journalists about how their requests are being ignored, and yet when the firm wants something they’ll be all open to reaching out. What ever happened to give and take, transparency or an open dialogue?
Clear, Understandable Language
No, your office opening won’t revolutionize the region. Your latest product isn’t “a globally recognized innovation”, and your work on developing a new site for buying diapers isn’t groundbreaking.
We have a tendency to use jargon, to make what we’re doing sound smarter, more grandiose than it really is (and it’s not new, as this 2014 article from The Guardian shows).
We need to ask ourselves if our words pass the child’s test. Could we explain what we are doing to a child, and would they get it? If not, then we need to scrap the wording, and drop from the public release all the phrases that we love to use internally.
We all understand the basics of communicating as individuals. We listen to the other person, we engage with them and respond, and we look to do so clearly and concisely (ok, not all of us). If it’s so simple to understand as people, then why do we struggle as organizations to get these basics right? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on this.
For many, the events of last week were a shock of the greatest magnitude. The vote for Britain to leave the European Union wasn’t foreseen, even by the pollsters, those professionals whose vocation it is to use real-time data to build a picture of how the mass population will vote. Even the Exit camp had foreseen a narrow defeat.
Much of the post-event analysis has asked why people voted for Brexit and how everyone misunderstood the public mood. Reporting has focused on those areas of England in the North which have suffered as a result of the closure of heavy industries in the 1980s. One theory as to why more Brits voted for Brexit than for Bremain would seem to be, “we’ve suffered for years, and you haven’t listened. This is our rejection of Westminster and the politics in London.”
It’s an interesting observation, especially when one considers that the areas which pushed to leave the EU received fewer immigrants and received the most aid from the European Union. The idea that the electorate punished the politicians for failing to listen is a compelling one, and it offers a reminder to all organizations that listening to their stakeholders is key to success.
By listening and understanding the views of these groups, be they the public, consumers, customers, or members, organizations can better represent those they wish to engage with and talk to. Organizations, particularly those which aim to speak on behalf of a certain constituency, should comprehend that they can only lead through having the needs of their members at heart, and building trust through asking their stakeholders what is important to them.
The example is no different in our region, where organizations are often led top-down and executives rarely interact with their members or stakeholder groups. If Brexit proves anything to us communicators, it is that we must be the link between those on the inside and others on the outside, to develop and provide the means for these groups to talk to each other and for differing opinions to be heard in an environment which is conducive to understanding. There was little of this in evidence among many Brexit voters, not just during the campaign but for years prior to the vote.
As a recap, active listening helps to improves mutual understanding and trust and enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker’s message. Active listening doesn’t just help with building trust and respect, but it also helps to reduce tension, encourage information sharing and creates an environment that promote collaboration and problem solving. It’s key to communications and is a skill that a good communicator should possess and practice.
Conversely, organizations who don’t listen end up becoming irrelevant, and serve no purpose than to fulfill the wishes of their management rather than those which they aim to represent.
There’s much more to talk about when it comes to communications and Brexit, including the use of positive and negative messaging to influence voter outcomes and why those areas with the most to lose in terms of EU funding voted for Brexit. There was obviously a disconnect between the politicians and voters on the Bremain side, which wasn’t the case with the Brexit politicians. However, as we’re only just at the beginning of this story, I’ll save that post for another occasion.