There’s an irony in this week’s dramatic departure of the co-CEOs of Research in Motion: these visionary men changed the way the world communicates, and yet led a company that struggled to communicate effectively in the very environment it helped to create. RIM’s rigid communications style seemed increasingly out of place in a world that prizes communication without control.
The Blackberry makers aren’t the only ones struggling. For generations, business schools taught managers to be highly controlled in their marketing and communications: whether it’s the brand strategy or the media interview or even the tweet via the corporate account, many executives still weigh every word with caution, and manage communication with a high degree of centralized control.
While this discipline is laudable, today’s leaders face a paradox: never has it been more critical to control what they say, and yet never have they had less control over the flow of information to their audiences. Due to the short news cycle, the long legacy of information on the Internet, and the massive shift of communication power from organizations to audiences, the content we generate can take unpredicatbale twists and turns en route to its intended destinations – if it gets there at all.
In forecasting winners and losers for 2012, watch for business leaders and organizations who do the following:
- Focus on influence, not control. Smart leaders craft and deliver a message carefully while empowering an army of both corporate and third-party supporters to adapt the message in their own ways – striving for clarity and consistency more than control.
- Lead a conversation. Whether it’s a media interview or an exchange on the social web, they answer questions to the best of their ability; they acknowledge problems and move swiftly to discussing solutions; if they can’t give an answer, they explain why; they go beyond the question to educate audiences proactively; and they do so with authenticity and good humour.
- Engage stakeholders constantly, not just quarterly. Today’s great communicators go beyond the requisite quarterly and annual reports to shareholders; they engage their broader stakeholder communities – from employees to analysts to NGOs to governments to local residents – all year round on matters related to management, governance, sustainability and performance measurement.
- Help first, sell second. As social media strategist Jay Baer writes: “The difference between “selling” and “helping” is only two letters, but the gap is, in reality, much larger.” Too many companies focus just on pitching products and services, rather than creating the reputational environment that enables the marketing and sale of products and services to flourish. The idea of helping before selling is at the core of modern public relations.
The market may not always judge an organization positively; the media may not always be favourable; and stakeholders may not always cheer one’s every move. Sometimes there are business challenges that no communication can overcome. Over the long term, however, the organizations that master communication without control can expect to be judged more fairly, valued more accurately and respected more than their peers.
What other ways can we achieve communication without control?