During a scorching afternoon last August, that summer period when one tries to sever the umbilical cord that binds us to our smartphone, and to rediscover books instead, I received a Tweet from José Manuel Velasco inviting Comms managers to summarize the attributes and skills involved in communications.
“For a brand, the X factor is the talent to create and maintain an emotional space to which the reader or viewer (not just the consumer) wants to belong. For the media, it means publishing, accurately and in pursuit of the public interest, what someone does not want you to publish”, was my answer, in 280 characters. I was curious to see what the survey would yield.
I recalled a conversation with José Manuel, back in 2006, just a few months after Twitter was launched. “At last, we face an end to all the deceptive BS PR and our dependence on press clippings to justify the contribution of Comms to the bottom line. The internet is going to change everythingfrom A to Z. At last, the creeper that is the internet is going to climb all over the media’s bully pulpit,” I forecast, without considering that virtue often lies somewhere in the Aristotelianmiddle ground.
Five years later, Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis (the internet aside) triggered the demise of an increasing number of PR agencies, entire Marketing departments andtraditional advertising campaigns. Just as the Great Depression of the 1930s led to the splendor of ‘modern fashion’, the 2010s ushered in a new digital positioning: all brands, institutions or products rushed to immediately open their own social media accounts —free of charge at the time, as if there were only room enough for the first arrivals, with barely enough bandwidth to go around. As if the competition were not merely a click away.
“Notice how people who barely know anything about Communications tend to talk about creating channels,” José Manuel pointed out. “And listen to those who, conversely, put content before channels.”
Practically a decade has passed. It feels as if time moves faster now than it used to. It turns out that the main conclusion from the survey of 130 Comms managers is that the X Factor in Comms is based on “a combination of empathic listening and story-telling skills that can move the audience and trigger a reaction that is beneficial to all those involved in the conversation.”
In other words, the attributes and skills involved in Communications today are equally applicable to the pre-Internet era. “Originality is the return to one’s origins,” as Gaudí said, or, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, “the only immutable thing is change“.
Ten current keys to the art of story-telling
The key features of humanity’s oldest profession have persisted down through the ages, since the time —between 400,000 and a million years ago—when humans began developing the ability to swap stories around the campfire, a habit which served, perhaps like none other to date, to evolve thought, strengthen traditions and develop the imagination.
Like any social discipline, communication is not an exact science, but it does have rules. Among these, we might highlight the following:
1. It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.
What matters is not what the speaker wants to convey, but what the audience understands. Active listening helps to ascertain whether the listener has actually understood the message, assuming that it has been articulated accurately and that the speech and body language coincide.
2. A communication strategy must be aligned with the business.
This may seem obvious, but it is not always the case. Rather like helium, the Comms Department tends to rise up and oversee the brand’s intangibles from above. Not having both feet on the ground can lead to error. The Christmas greeting posted by Coca-Cola’s community manager, featuring a map of Russia which did not include Crimea, led to calls in parliament to declare the company non grata. To resolve the conflict, the map was updated, which merely managed to ruffle feathers in Ukraine. Moral of the story: keep your nose to the ground, even if it’s just to send out a Christmas greeting.
3. Internal and external communications cannot function independently of each other.
At many companies, the Comms department is guilty of a silo mentality. It has traditionally had to lock horns with Sales, which believes, based on self-interest, that Marketing is a profit center, intrinsic to the business line, whereas Communication is a cost center. In parallel, the infighting that does most to undermine Communication tends to be with Human Resources, which wants to be able to manage internal communication itself, since the audience is the workforce. Both these struggles are obsolete. The challenge in a hyper-connected world is to manage a common, global, integrated story.
4. Ongoing sincere dialogue with stakeholders is what yields results.
Transparency and dialogue are no longer distinguishing features —now they are essentials. To attain a target position in a way that is sustainable over time, it is necessary to first identify stakeholder expectations as honestly as possible. In this way, their demands can be integrated into the Comms strategy (and the company’s own strategy) with a view to responding properly to them and allowing the product or service itself to be the best ambassador for the brand.
5. All media are social.
Much has been written about journalism versus social media and how the latter, along with blogs and other participatory spaces, may actually replace the mass media. We even see surveys among journalists worldwide who allegedly recognize Facebook as the primary source of news, ahead of conventional formats. However, this may actually be a false dichotomy: a fallacy in which two extreme simplifications are presented as the only possible options. So, it’s not far-fetched to sustain that the vast majority of the mass media are already social, too.
6. Healthy Comms have a great deal to do with anticipation.
Like anyone else, a Commsmanager shouldn’t worry too much about things that haven’t happened yet or dwell excessively on “what if” scenarios. Nonetheless, a good plan anticipates potential future events so as to respond to them appropriately, from two angles: a) reactively, by implementing processes designed to address crises, and b) proactively, by planning milestones on a calendar sufficiently in advance to develop quality messages and content, involving all the relevant players so as to tap into synergies. Communication should not be a flow of sporadic bright ideas or of reactions to emerging events; quite the opposite, in fact.
7. “Vision without execution is just hallucination”.
This saying is attributed to industrialist Henry Ford. Applied to the communication function, it refers to the need to define a goal, a desired position, but without ignoring the method to attain it. It is vital to properly define a plan of specific actions for achieving our goal. Communication, especially nowadays, must concern itself not so much with image (even if first impressions are what count) as with reputation; i.e. the sum of perceptions over time, rooted in the sustained behavior of people and organizations. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
8. Often is man’s best wisdom to be silent.
Greek lyric poet Pindar, in the 5th century BC, put it that way. When the ostrich buries its head in the sand, it is saying a great deal with its silence. This is explained well by ‘perception doctor’ Goyo Panadero when he says: “Everything that is not said is interpreted. When analyzing the risks, there are times when a company may opt for silence. This may have made sense years ago, when there were few media and the audience washighly concentrated. Nowadays, however, with the internet, anything that happens is bound to be made public sooner or later. You don’t have to say much, but it is better to stay ahead of things and tell it like it is.”
9. If you don’t feed the beast, it will turn on you.
If we accept that silence is often highly eloquent, we may deduce that NON-communication simply isn’t possible. Saying No comment to a journalist does not mean, by any stretch, that the news will not be published, but quite the opposite. If you don’t generate content based on your key words, search engines will yield results from other sources that have been gone to the trouble. As Eli Gold, in the TV series The Good Wife, said: “If you don’t want a story told, it’s better to tell it yourself.”
10. If content is king, context is queen.
This maxim is very popular among digital marketing professionals. It is important not to lose sight of consumers; it’s vital to know their habits and behaviors before choosing the format and the timing so as to communicate with them appropriately, without being intrusive or a nuisance. It is only logical that targeting should gain importance given the increasing audience segmentation, but the concept was already valid before digital arrived,even before McLuhan coined the term “global village” and popularized his famous phrase “the medium is the message”.
Ethics and technology, the challenge to come
Two universal principles apply to the foregoing 10 keys to communication. The first is linked to the importance of common sense, sometimes considered to be the least common of the senses. Henri Bergson defines itas “the capacity to orient oneself in practical life“. The second relates to the advantages of conciseness. “What is good, if brief, is twice as good; and even bad things, if short, are not so bad,” as Baltasar Gracián said in the early 17th century. Blaise Pascal wrote not long afterwards: “I only wrote such a long letter because I didn’t have time to make it shorter“.
Looking ahead, however, we are faced with a colossal new and unprecedented challenge that is closely related to the up-to-the-minute relevance of social media. The major platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter and Google) repeat, mantra-style, that they cannot be considered news media. They do this to divert attention from their business model, as Luis Garicano lays out quite convincingly in his article on fake news Hoaxes on Social Media.
Although these giant corporations already control almost all the world’s online advertising (leaving the scraps for their competitors, the media), the main problem is the vertiginous speed at which fake news (or, to put it more bluntly, lies) spread via sock puppet accounts and baseless campaigns.
History has repeatedly taught us of the dangers of propaganda, deliberate misinformation, manipulation and lying with complete impunity. We are all equal before the law and we must give serious consideration, from an ethical standpoint, to the idea of regulating the algorithms and their creators, no matter how much they insist that they are justtech companies.