The communications revolution

Delivered to the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s Communication Revolution! conference, 15 April, 2010

When I sat down to write this presentation the first thing I did was to save the document and, without thinking, typed into the box –  revolution speech.doc.

Many years ago, as a young Trotskyite I made many speeches on revolution although most of them were off the cuff and I didn’t need to write them – had them off pat in fact.

That revolution didn’t come to pass. Indeed, on reflection, the remarkable thing about revolutions is that many of the ones we predict or yearn for don’t come to pass; or they have unintended consequences; or they surprise us by being totally unexpected.

Worse, we find that the word revolution is applied to things that might more properly be described as changes, fashions or something which actually isn’t really very much different from what went before.

I guess Melbourne fashion is a good example of that – the new black is always black.

Even worse still, the people who are wildly throwing the word revolution around are usually us, or our industry colleagues, indulging in a little bit of hyperbole to get our message noticed.

What is revolutionary and what does it mean for PR leadership?

But talking about revolution is very useful both for understanding the context in which we operate as practitioners, what the implications of changes we are living through are, and what they require from us in terms of leadership?

Whenever I hear the word revolution I always think of the Chinese leader, Chou En-lai’s, response to Henry Kissinger when asked what he thought about the French Revolution. Chou paused for a moment and then said: “It’s too early to tell.”

In the long-term we can see that some revolutions had profound impacts. My view is that the ones we hear most about – the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution – are less important than a very few revolutions which we often take for granted yet lead to massive, irreversible social and economic change.

The revolution in water technology a couple of millennia ago was the first massive step forward in productivity and industrialisation.

The Gutenberg printing revolution half a millennium ago was probably the single most decisive event in creating the modern western world.

The invention of the pill made possible what was probably the most revolutionary social development in the past 100 years – the liberation of women.

Now this list is primarily technological and scientific so one would expect that the next major one on the list would be the current communications “revolution.”

I don’t think it necessarily is, or at least it’s too early to tell, and it’s a topic I will return to later.

But first I want to make some broader points about what revolutions do.

They change our perceptions of ourselves as humans. Water technology brought about the shift from us being hunter gatherers to being more productive agricultural and industrial producers.

They change what we think. There had been many religious reformers before Martin Luther, but it was Gutenberg which made society wide religious reform possible.

They change how our society functions as the Pill shows.

But most importantly they create uncertainty. They accentuate the fact that we can never make accurate predictions about the future and that the unexpected must always be the expected.

What have we learnt from the GFC? That the quants and all their models couldn’t eradicate uncertainty and all the confident assertions about the economic system were just assertions and not facts.

What did we learn from the collapse of the Soviet empire? That even an organisation with all the resources of the CIA couldn’t predict a massive change.

What do we learn from comparing a list of the top 20 companies today with the lists from 20 and 50 years ago? That even the most successful companies die, change, get taken over or have their industry disappear from underneath them.

This historical excursion has a point.

The point is that our history and our current situation remind us that our world is fundamentally uncertain – a world in which many of our traditional comfortable assumptions about what is real, what is going to happen next, the major factors affecting societies, economies, companies, governments and organisations may be badly wrong at worst and, least, inappropriate in an uncertain world.

It can be frightening, but I prefer to think of it as a great career and leadership opportunity for practitioners who can understand what it means and work out how to respond.

What is to be done?

Traditionally a key role for PR practitioners has been to re-assure people in times of uncertainty whether it be changes in the workplace, in a company or organisation’s outlook or in how a product or service will solve a problem.

We do, after all, tend to spend lots of time putting positive spins on things and not so much on spreading negative messages – except in areas such as politics and bitter takeover battles.

But my view is that – while we will need to keep the re-assurance up – the real opportunity uncertainty creates is to advance our personal careers, the profile of our industry and to take on new leadership roles.

So – how can we do it?

First, by reconceptualising our practice – what we do, how we do it, what’s important in what we do?

Second, by resisting fads and focussing instead on the real drivers of corporate reputation and organisational success.

Third, by revolutionising the language and presentation we and our organisations use to help ensure our organisations are seen as authentic and trustworthy.

Fourth, by inserting more reality about society and economics into our organisational discussions and strategic planning.

Reconceptualising practice

We need to be much more rigorous in our thinking about what we do and what it is worth to our organisations.

When we get asked what we do too many of us think about the technical things we do – managing reputation, doing media stuff, producing materials and plans and programs.

These ought to be things we take for granted.

What are more important are the core competencies, the behaviours and the priorities we bring to our jobs.

Professor Anne Gregory, the UK’s only full time PR Professor is probably the most original thinker and researcher in our field today. Her work on evaluation, for instance, is genuinely revolutionary and everyone in the industry should read it.

Two years ago she published some other really important research in a paper called The competencies of senior practitioners in the UK in Public Relations Review Vol 34 No 3 ppp 215-223.

There has been a lot of academic research about what practitioners do and what their bosses expect of them. In the past decade, sadly, some of that research has found that CEOs don’t see PR or communication people as necessary members of the dominant coalition – the senior management coterie – and think that few of them are capable of operating at Board level.

There has been less research on the personal characteristics and behaviours required of PR and communication people and Anne set out to discover what were the competencies – the sets of behaviour which support us in achieving corporate objectives and how we use our knowledge and skills in our day to day performance.

She identified “top”, very senior, PR professionals in large private and public sector organisations and then interviewed them. All of the people in her sample reported directly to the CEO or Chairman and/or was a member of the Main Board.

These are the competencies she found:

What I find interesting about the tables is the extent to which they are a way of thinking about issues and approaches.

Key words and phrases which come through are big picture, networking, consulting and involving, values, strategic/long term view, investigating and analysing.

How do these concepts relate to emerging trends in management?

A while ago there was a conference of Deans of major business schools around the world.

The Dean of Business at UTS, Roy Green, wrote an article for The Australian Financial Review (22 February 2010) about the conference and some discussions there on the future of business education.

In particular he referred to a major paper by Harvard Business School’s Professor Sikrant Datar based on his forthcoming book, Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at the Crossroads.

Professor Datar argued that business education will increasingly focus on ‘knowing’, ‘doing’ and ‘being’.

Green said in his article: “The first is essentially about analytical and integrative thinking……this means thinking about issues from diverse, shifting angles and framing problems holistically…..and building judgement and intuition into “messy, unstructured situations’.”

Datar said the second aspect was practical skills and how to “close the knowing-doing gap” with “creative and innovative thinking”.

Green also cited IDEO Chief Tim Brown talking about tapping into less “conventional problem-solving practices” and using thinking which “relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional, and to express ourselves in media other than words and symbols”.

The final aspect – ‘being’ – is about having “a sense of identity and self-awareness as a basis for the development of leadership and collaboration”.

The words in Green’s article, Datar’s presentation, and the behavioural findings in Anne Gregory’s research are not identical – but there are strong resonances there.

It may be that the qualities which make top PR and communications professionals in an uncertain world are exactly the qualities international business education will increasingly emphasise.

Resist fads

We need to be very confident about our behaviours, values and competencies because we  are all constantly exposed to various management fads dreamed up by consulting firms, academics and others.

Sometimes they are simply re-packaged versions of common sense and others they are destructive concepts which upend organisations without improving outcomes.

There is no need to discuss these in detail – we have all been victims of CEOs and managers in thrall to these concepts and been forced to try to help mend the damage after they have moved on to their next “change challenge”.

But it is also arguable that the current discussion of communications technology, in particular social media, is a fad we need to resist as well.

This is not to say social media will disappear.

It will grow and prosper because it taps into our curiosity, expands our capacity for word-of-mouth communications and provides fun and interaction.

Where it is a fad is more in way business and PR people use it.

At times companies and organisations trying to use social media are like middle-aged Dads dancing at their daughter’s 21st birthday party.

And when they do it really badly they are like middle-aged Dads dancing at their daughter’s 21st birthday while dressed in an open neck shirt unbuttoned to show their chest and gold chains while tossing their heads and disturbing their comb-overs.

Natalie Toohey, a consultant in stakeholder relations, wrote an interesting op ed in The AFR (10 February 2010) where she said that social media was obviously relevant to business stakeholder and reputation management but that often it was done very badly by using new media for old channel communications.

Natalie said: “A reputation ultimately rests on how well the business meets those few, core concerns of its few, core stakeholders. Satisfied stakeholders mean a solid reputation and the ability to withstand a run of bad media and even a regular lashing in the blogosphere.

“Conversely, a business that fails to respond to its stakeholders’ basic concerns is headed for a reputational black hole and no amount of CEO tweeting will save it”, she said.

I should also as an aside that we should be careful about getting sucked into how much technology shapes humans and remember how much we shape technology. That is a very big subject which needs more time than we have today to discuss.

For anyone interested in the subject I can recommend a very good book – Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology by Robert Pool.

Revolutionise language and presentation to achieve authenticity and trust

I found it really hard to read Don Watson’s last book, Bendable Learnings, mainly because page after page of sludge was wearying and depressing – particularly given that I knew many PR industry people had written the awful stuff.

We all have infamous examples of dreadful prose and speech. I sat in a meeting with one of the presenters who is speaking at this conference and didn’t understand a word they said.

I won’t name them now but perhaps, during the final summing up you can all have a quick competition to guess who it is. I will find a decent bottle of red for the prize winner.

But it’s not only incomprehensible jargon but also ordinary words in ugly constructions which make them meaningless.

New Labour in the UK is really good at this. In 1998 the UK Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, said “We will give direction. We shall set targets and chase progress, and where appropriate we will take direct action to make sure that our objectives are achieved.”

This is as bureaucratic and soulless as a Stalinist five year plan.

As George Orwell said: “The English language…becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Similarly with the tyranny of PowerPoint which forces thinking and presentations into conventional, ordered and pre-determined formats.

It provides a neatness which doesn’t apply in real life.

I recommend everyone reads Edward R. Tufte’s short pamphlet, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Our Corrupts Within, which excoriates sloppy thinking dressed up as well-packaged PowerPoint presentation.

The most telling example in the pamphlet is how the fault that caused the Columbia shuttle disaster was lost because the reports which went to senior management were all in PowerPoint format and the little uncertain details about foam insulation didn’t make it into the big type in the big boxes.

It is also telling that one the US banks which best survived the GFC, JPMorgan Chase, had a CEO, Jamie Dimon, who discouraged PowerPoint presentations and preferred detailed reports and detailed questioning.

These concerns, therefore, are not simply a case of an ageing curmudgeon bemoaning falling standards.

They are about clarity of thinking and questioning. If we are complicit in producing sludge we are complicit in producing unclear thinking and obscuring reality.

There is nobody better placed than us to show leadership in these areas by showing leadership in our core competence – communications.

And if we do we will find that our organisations will have their reputations improved, their brands seen as authentic and the level of trust and quality of relationships with stakeholders improving their issues management and crisis preparedness.

Inserting reality

One excellent aspect of clear language and thinking is that it brings us all back to reality and cuts through the cosy jargon which unites organisations in insularity and ignorance.

I often think the most profound thing ever said about PR was the comment by Peter Drucker that PR brings the outside into organisations.

By doing so we challenge the conventional wisdom and help organisations avoid being ambushed by external forces and social changes.

When I was a young PR practitioner all my elders talked constantly about the need for PR to be in the Board room. The reality now is that we are. What we really need is to get out the Board room and into the streets and on public transport.

If we do so we will improve our issues and crisis management capability.

The recent Toyota reputational disasters in the US were caused not by the product recalls themselves – there are lots of product recalls all the time – but by defensiveness, deference to senior managers and denial.

The problems could have been dealt with much earlier and more effectively if someone had had the courage to speak out on how the issue was playing externally and what needed to be done.

That capacity and courage is the essence of PR and communications leadership.

Some conclusions

As I said earlier we should take technical skills for granted in PR leaders.

We have to nurture them and constantly update them but there’s a bit of a problem if they aren’t there. The fact that you are at this conference shows you already understand that.

What I would like to leave you with are some broad conclusions about PR leadership in these uncertain times – in the form of conclusions about the non-technical forms of leadership..

First: self-knowledge about what sort of people we are, what we have to offer and what’s required of us is the first step to being a good counsellor to senior management.

Second: ethics, values, authenticity, rigorous thinking, investigation and analysis, intuition and creative are things we can bring to the table and which will be in increasing demand.

Third: now that uncertainty is back with a vengeance the intellectual courage to challenge conventional wisdom and speak truth to power is all important.

I mentioned revolutions and Trotskyism at the outset of this talk.

Perhaps the final thought I can leave with you is that our role can be most effective if we are a sort of internal licensed Bolshie troublemaker.

And if we do it well we will be well-rewarded and be entitled to call ourselves Bollinger Bolsheviks.