Five communication trends worth embracing in 2018
For those who believe in communication as a force for good, 2017 was a dark and difficult year. It started badly, with the newly installed White House press secretary insisting that Donald Trump had attracted the largest crowd in history for a presidential inauguration – a lie, over a trivial matter, which set the symbolic tone for the year.
The term “fake news,” already in widespread use by commentators, entered the everyday lexicon in 2017. While it wasn’t new, it was newly dangerous, thanks to a combination of factors: overwhelming amounts of content, widespread access to publishing power, the decline of professional journalism, poor listening by leaders and organizations, and a loss of trust in traditional sources of authority – magnifying the intentional deceptions of too many people in high places.
Yes, these are unsettling times. But let’s ring in 2018 on an optimistic note, by looking at some positive trends in this dark landscape. Understanding them – and putting them into action — can help leaders and organizations seeking to build mutual understanding and trust with their publics in the year ahead.
Leaders build trust by taking stands – and acting on them
For most of the last century, the conventional wisdom held that it was extremely risky for business leaders to take political stands. We’re seeing a 180-degree turn, exemplified by Merck CEO Ken Frazier, who resigned from Trump’s manufacturing advisory council after the latter implied a moral equivalency between marching neo-Nazis and those who confronted them in Charlottesville, Virginia. While other CEOs eventually followed suit, Frazier’s courage in putting his company’s values into action created a potent reputational opportunity. Watch for more of this leadership from CEOs in 2018.
Technology platforms step up to fight fake news
A century ago, one solution to false and misleading news was the development of professional journalism, guided by standards, ethics and the pursuit of truth. Today, as misinformation spreads so easily on global technology platforms, these platforms are starting to explore twenty-first century solutions. For example, Facebook spent the year experimenting with ways to identify disputed content, eventually shifting to an approach that publishes related articles to provide different perspectives; the company is also working to “demote” false news as identified by fact-checkers, to reduce the economic incentives of spammers and troll farms. While these are still early efforts and the fake news problem is bigger than any one platform, as we enter 2018 these are promising signs that innovation can help us find solutions.
“Macronisme” confronts Trumpism
One paradox of the digital age is that while we have more access to information than ever, it’s actually proving harder to hold leaders accountable amidst all the noise. Trump is a product of this era of high inequality, low trust, too much content, too little listening, weakened journalism and political polarization. A year ago, it was tempting to see his victory as a harbinger for more like him. While that is surely true, democratic politics generates contrast – and in 2018 we will also see emerging leaders who communicate a case for an open world view, rather than a closed one. The Economist magazine calls this clash Trumpism vs. Macronisme – comparing the approaches of U.S. president with his new French counterpart. A battle between open and closed world views is also playing out within political parties, even Trump’s own.
Scrutiny – and standards – rise in workplaces everywhere
The revelations of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct have unleashed a tidal wave of anger and revelations about inappropriate behaviour in workplaces around the world – claiming the jobs of a long and growing list of senior executives. This societal conversation shows no sign of abating, nor do the parallel ones about racism and homophobia. More broadly, in today’s reputation-driven economy, nothing hurts the value of businesses more than real or perceived misbehaviour by managers. To cite just one example, consider Uber’s woes – notwithstanding the success and popularity of its business model.
This presents an exciting communication opportunity. While some executives fear a new workplace where personality is suppressed and political correctness rules, the best and smartest ones realize how deeply bad behaviour damages trust, and see greater scrutiny and higher standards as a means to strengthen it. In 2018, such leaders will seek to build structures and cultures that model the good, detect and deal with the bad, and redouble their commitment to equity and inclusion. When they communicate their values to their people and their publics, they will do so with authenticity and confidence.
The PR industry models the good – and confronts the bad
Notwithstanding the old image of PR professionals as “spin doctors,” my experience is that they are often the ones arguing most strongly for honesty, transparency and understanding the perspectives of an organization’s most important stakeholders – not just because these things are right, but also they are ultimately in the organization’s economic interest. One major challenge is that most people communicating for organizations do so outside the industry’s professional associations, codes of ethics and standards of practice.
The upside of a year with so much unethical communication was that it provided the industry with many opportunities to confront bad actors. In the U.S., the Public Relations Society of America was vocal in rebuking the White House for making demonstrably false statements, and the industry spoke with a united voice against the deceitful actions of Bell Pottinger, a U.K. PR firm known for its controversial clients, in South Africa. In 2018, the profession’s international confederation, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, is convening a summit that aims to unite the industry around a global code of ethics.
The PR industry also continues to celebrate excellence in public relations and communication practice. At our firm, nothing brings us more pride than work that helps bring about mutual understanding and trust, reconciling stakeholders in the public interest – and 2017 brought us many such opportunities. These included managing public communications for the 16,000 indigenous claimants in the Sixties Scoop class action lawsuit, helping Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission reframe the national policy conversation around market-based solutions to climate change and supporting the Ontario pork industry as it become an agricultural sector leader in social responsibility.
With PR playing a more influential role than ever before at a time where value flows from relationships and reputations, public relations professionals are doing exceptional work all over the world. Even in confusing and challenging times, a new year can bring new hope – and renewed resolve to make this one better than the last.
About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.