Listen and learn

Communicate Summer 2017 Issue – X-Pert File

Fares Ghneim, managing director, insights & analysis, CARMA, on corporate communications challenges in the digital age

There is no doubt technology has radically transformed how we consume media and receive news. We have gone, in the span of a generation, from gathering around the TV to watch the evening news to 24-hour satellite news channels that suddenly brought previously distant world events into our homes and offices to accessing limitless amounts of data and information via the internet to user generated content that is instant and often shared via social networks much faster than any news organization could hope to achieve. This ongoing technological development has a profound impact on how organizations communicate and engage with their publics. Gone are the days of having a trusted list of go-to journalists and the one-way flow of communications from an entity to the outside world. Today’s information landscape is multinodal where all stakeholders, irrespective of their relationship to an organization or to each other, have an opportunity to be heard and platforms to express their views.

This creates three main challenges that today’s communications professionals must grapple with:

  • firstly, the instant communications made possible by smartphones and constant connectivity; people are on their phones and devices from the moment they wake until late at night;
  • secondly, the fact that everyone today is an author; whereas news channels twenty years ago would only broadcast professional grade footage, grainy cellphone videos have become commonplace in the rush to break news first while crisis events play themselves out in real time on social media;
  • finally, the personalization of news; media consumption today has become much more personal and tailored to individual interests – linear TV is on its way out and people can instead watch what they want, when they want and where they want through a growing choice of on-demand services; similarly, people no longer need to read newspapers – over even visit newspaper websites – when they can get all the information they need from news aggregators or join online and social media groups that coalesce around the issues that interest them.

The ongoing issues faced by United Airlines in the United States perfectly showcase how these three trends create an explosive combination that can rapidly lead to a global reputational crisis. From banning leggings to forcibly removing a passenger from a plane to dead bunnies in the cargo hold, it is unlikely that any of the incidents involving United Airlines would have received the widespread and global attention that they did.

Likewise, Snapchat – ironically a beacon of the new media landscape which so recently completed in initial public offering (IPO) – is facing a global crisis with the #boycottSnapchat hashtag after its chief executive allegedly said he didn’t want the company to expand into “poor” countries such as India and Spain.

However, it is not just in times of crisis that organizations need to take the new information landscape into account. Rather, new technology must be integral to communications strategies with activities and campaigns built around new ways in which the world communicates.

The starting point for doing so remains the same as with any communications programme:

  • Thoroughly understanding the stakeholder universe
  • Performing an audit of how the different groups perceive an organization and what their stance toward it is
  • And then identifying where and how each group consumes information.

The difference lies in the vast amount of data generated by new media. It is critical for organizations to constantly monitor and stay on top of this data to track the performance of communications activities and identify of issues that may arise.

Flexibility to quickly adapt strategies and change tactics is also a must – instant communications requires instant responses.A great example of this type of rapid reaction is offered by Emirates Airline’s response to the crash landing at Dubai airport of flight EK521 in August 2016. The CARMA team were assisting the airline with real time monitoring and alerts on public and media reaction to the crisis when negative posts began to emerge among social media users in India – the flight originated from the Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram – around the lack of a local hotline. Having that information allowed Emirates Airline to quickly respond and publish a telephone hotline for passengers’ relatives in India.

Next to being flexible, corporate communications strategies will also need to be much more innovative to engage consumers on a personal level. Traditional corporate communications channels – press releases and the like – will become less effective, as media consumption habits continue to change and people come together around topics in which they specifically care about.

Demographic segmentation by age, gender, place of residence and so on will need to be supplemented by much more detailed stakeholder analysis around issues and interests.Corporate functions that own the various pieces of data, such as PR, marketing, sales or customer services will increasingly have to work together to more accurately determine what works and what doesn’t and to identify trends.

Finally, credibility and transparency are two key issues for both public and private sector organizations to focus on. Wariness of big business and the establishment are on the increase – witness the rise of anti-globalization sentiment around the world or the increasingly populist nature of political discourse in countries such as the US, UK and France.

Successful communicators will be the ones who are engaged in the listening part of a conversation and can identify opportunities among the challenges that the modern media and technology provide.