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Why communicators will (and must) take stronger leadership in organizations

In Communication on March 20, 2012 at 6:46 pm

The public relations industry is in flux, maybe even in turmoil. Many discussions in 2011 centered around redefining PR. It’s time to recognize that a fundamental shift has occurred in our world and it is a shift that puts strategic communications counsel in the thick of corporate and organizational decision-making. You may say, its always been that way, but if so, I think we’d be missing what is really happening here.

First, let’s look at the top crisis events of 2011. Here is one of the best lists I’ve seen compiled, the Holmes Report. Yes, we have the usual problems with disasters, cover-ups, hyper-aggressive media and all that. But look a little deeper and I think we see something else emerging. News Corp, RIM, Dow Chemical, Netflix, Sony, Qantas from this list fit into the category. But I would add to them Bank of America (debit card fee announced and withdrawn) and Verizon (On-line bill paying fee announced and withdrawn) and Congress (SOPA and PIPA announced and withdrawn).

All of these, I would argue, represent situations where business or reputation-related decisions were made that turned out to be contrary to the values, priorities and culture of the internet-generation. And that generation knows how to use the new hyper-networked world in powerful ways that forced even those with seemingly almost unlimited power to blink.

Some of these actions seems so foolish in retrospect that it is reasonable to wonder how they could have been made. But, on the other hand, it is easy to understand if, and only if, the question of how the hyper-connected crowd might react had not been thoroughly evaluated as part of the decision. And that is precisely what I think is happening.

Let’s put it another way. I’m guessing that many of these leaders are more than 40 years old and many if not most are not of the hyper-networked mindset (I would think the Netflix CEO would be an exception to this but he demonstrated that same kind of “arrogance” (as he himself described it) as the others demonstrated. I think that there is a vast gap in understanding between those who are part of that hyper-networked world and share it core values and the leaders of these organizations. Hence, the obviously avoidable crises.

Now, CEOs are very smart people for the most part, or they wouldn’t get to these positions. So I think there is some major soul searching going on right now as the landscape of bruised and tattered reputations from the disaster-prone year of 2011 is observed. I think there has to be a growing awareness of blindspots related to the values and capability of the hyper-networked crowd. And that is why I think it is a golden moment for not public relations professionals (I never much cared for that term) but for strategic communication experts who thoroughly and viscerally understand the hyper-networked crowd and their culture. Every legislator’s staff needs to have one or access to one. A smart CEO will have one essentially joined at the hip. And board members will likely be more willing to consider CEO candidates with deep experience in communications for even the top spot.

I don’t think one has to be 28 years old to qualify–but of course, I speak with the bias of 60 years. As evidence I would offer the unusually on-target insights of Richard Edelman. Several articles and presentations from him lately have highlighted the need for communications to take a much stronger role in corporate and organization decision-making. And in this presentation, he makes a very strong case for the Third Way, as he calls it. The way of public engagement. He shares his slide deck from his presentation and if I were a communications manager in an organization, I find a way to “borrow” these slides and use them help leadership understand what is going on in the world. (Of course, credit Mr. Edelman). I would also share with them the list of unnecessary crises and how these are related to out of touch decision-making.

If business and organization leaders do not start understanding that doing business today is engaging in an on-going conversation with the people who truly matter to their future, I predict a crisis-filled future. This on-going conversation is the best way to make decisions, the best way to get support for the products and services offered, and the best way to identify and then respond to problems if and when they occur.

Every organization has to be asking these two questions right now:

1) who are the people whose opinion about us matters most for our future?
2) How are we involving them in every major decision we make?

Getting the answers to those questions right requires the knowledge, skills and intuition of good communicators. That’s why they need to be at the table with a voice that is heard.

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