The Communication Revolution: 8 Lessons from the Front Lines

Daniel Tisch, EMBA’96, BA’88, is President of Argyle Communications. He shares his insights on how communication is changing the world, and changing expectations for managers everywhere.
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The Communication Revolution: 8 Lessons from the Front Lines

Even as economic power has become increasingly concentrated in large corporations, communication power has become more diffuse. Most of us now carry global publishing power in our pockets, and we are connected to one another like never before. This combination of access and interconnection gives us the ability to make or break reputations and brands.

For the last two years, I’ve had a unique vantage point on this tumultuous change, as Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the confederation of the world’s PR and communications professional associations.

Professional business communicators are on the front lines of the communications revolution. Having met thousands of communicators on every continent, from at least 30 different countries and many different cultures, I can share a few insights about how communication is changing the world of business — and how business communication itself must change as a consequence.

The balance of power has changed between organizations and their audiences.

Whether we act as citizens, consumers, investors, activists or employees, we now have the power to shape corporate reputations; we can build up governments or bring them down; we can start social movements in a moment and spread truth or lies, hope or fear, peace or violence, clarity or ambiguity. The Arab Spring is the most prominent of many examples. (Read my blog post The Arab Spring, a year later: When mainstream journalism meets social media, revolutions happen.” )

This power has transformed our expectations of business, and therefore requires organizations to engage their audiences in different ways.

As expectations change, businesses need a new kind of legitimacy.

The legitimacy of a corporation does not come only from its shareholders, and the legitimacy of a government does not come only from an election result. Legitimacy flows from ongoing accountability to all stakeholders, and from public consensus about the moral right of a party in power to govern or a business’s licence to operate. Traditionally, this accountability flowed through channels such as shareholder meetings, legislatures and the media. Now, however, the public’s new communication power is changing the public’s expectations. Organizations therefore need a new kind of legitimacy — one earned through ongoing and transparent communication. While ignoring media or stakeholders can sometimes yield short-term safety, in the long run such evasion enhances organizational risk — particularly in an age when intangibles such as reputation comprise the bulk of a typical company’s market value.

In business communication, the new imperative is influence.

As a Queen’s MBA grad and frequent speaker in the Queen’s MBA, Queen’s Executive MBA and Bachelor of Commerce programs, I’ve seen how managers are trained to value control. The great paradox of 21st-century communication is that while it’s never been more important to control what we say, it’s never been more important to accept that we cannot control what others say about us — even when they work for us. (Read my blog post Communication without control: Why ‘message discipline’ is important but overrated”.) If we surrender some control — while being disciplined about what we say and clear about the values for which we stand — we can gain something that’s arguably far more useful, and that is influence.

Public relations isn't just about what you say; it's about what you do.

Arthur Page, an American PR-industry pioneer, said: “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 per cent by what it does and 10 per cent by what it says.” This is more true today than ever before. Old-school managers still view public relations as a one-way process of communication: the speaker trying to reach an audience. Today’s smart managers understand that PR is about an ongoing, often chaotic, multilateral conversation in which their goals are to gain influence, nurture relationships, and build social capital to the mutual benefit of the business and all its stakeholders. Success demands going beyond words, and being genuinely open to changing what the organization actually does. This is why modern public relations is less driven by the marketing and sales function, and more by a CEO’s strategic direction that fosters authentic engagement and builds a strong reputation and brand.

Listening is everyone's job — not just the PR department's.

Too many companies worry obsessively about what their employees might be doing wrong on social networks, rather than helping them do things that are right for the organization. In a networked society, every employee is a company communicator at some level. Smart organizations set guidelines that encourage employees to detect both opportunities and threats, while respecting the organization’s official communication channels. This is not easy to do. Success demands communicating proactively to employees so that they can understand the context behind organizational decisions.

The media mix has changes: use it to help, before you sell.

The advent of social networking and ever-more sophisticated data is enabling businesses to forge one-on-one relationships with customers. It’s also strengthened a key tool in the public relations arsenal: ‘owned media’ — i.e., content generated by the business as a supplement to earned and paid media advertising. What kind of content should you create? The smartest businesses are using these tools to help potential customers first — with no strings attached — in order to pave the way for a future sale. (I recommend Jay Baer’s posting “The Key to Social Media Success is Just 2 Letters”.)

Responsibility matters, but sustainability matters more.

Many North American businesses have embraced the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) — the notion that organizations have a duty to ‘give back’ to society. In many countries — Brazil being a great example — business communicators focus more on sustainability, a concept that suggests mutual benefit and shared value for the company and its stakeholders. (Read my blog post Communication for sustainability: Blogging from Brazil.”)

The problem is that, for many organizations, CSR and sustainability remain peripheral or ‘feel-good’ activities driven by factors such as regulation or social pressure, rather than an imperative embedded in an organization’s DNA and its strategy. Today, there’s a compelling opportunity to shift executive thinking to business-building terrain; using sustainability to strengthen a company’s relationships with its stakeholders, including society at large, thus influencing its reputation and its value.

The single best way to engage an audience is through co-creation

In many countries, nationhood has been achieved through either conquest or compromise; Canada is an example of the latter. There is, however, a third way: co-creation. In creating its new constitution in the 1990s, South Africa may be the world’s greatest example of the value of creating content together. (Read my blog post “A letter from South Africa: the co-creation imperative”.) The same lesson applies to an individual business’s relationships with its stakeholders. Whether you’re dealing with one influential stakeholder or seek to influence all stakeholders, there’s no better way to get everyone on the same side than through co-creation.

 

The world feels a little bit broken these days, and there’s never been a greater need for communication to help bring about economic recovery, political freedom, technological advancement and social justice.

According to legend, the Greek mathematician Archimedes once said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Today, communication can be that lever. And on a fulcrum of stability that comes from redesigning business communication for a new era, intelligent, ethical two-way communication truly can move the world.

In this issue

Inside Goodes

Profiles

Alumni News

Features

Dean's Message

Parting Shot

Daniel Tisch

Daniel Tisch (EMBA’96, BA’88) is President and CEO of Toronto-based Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s most acclaimed public relations firms, which has been in business for more than 30 years. For the past two years, he has been Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.

Dan has consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands and all three levels of government in Canada, earning more than 150 industry awards. Previously, he held various senior roles in the federal government, including serving as Senior Policy Advisor to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and a member of the Canadian delegation to the G7 Economic Summit.

After completing his Queen’s Executive MBA, he was named one of 16 ‘star alumni’ from Canada’s top EMBA programs by The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine. He has lectured at Queen’s School of Business for 17 years, is a member of the Queen’s University Board of Trustees, and was thrilled last year to become a Queen’s parent (to Eric, Artsci’16).

Among Dan’s other major volunteer commitments was the co-founding of Social Venture Partners Toronto and being a leader in Scouts Canada. You can follow his commentary on Twitter (@DanTisch) or on his blog (www.argylecommunications.com/blog).

The Globa Alliance for PR & Communication Management

The Global Alliance for PR and Communication Management (www.globalalliancepr.org) is the confederation of the world’s major public relations and communication management associations and institutions, representing 160,000 practitioners and academics around the globe.

Its mission is to unify the public relations profession, raise professional standards all over the world, share knowledge for the benefit of its members, and be the global voice for public relations in the public interest.

The GA is the convenor of the World Public Relations Forum, to be held next in Madrid, Spain, in September 2014.