“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Political philosopher Professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard has argued that in modern Western democracies political leadership has, in the age of free market orthodoxy, been replaced largely with a system of market mimicking government. Leadership decisions on important matters of public policy have been based on utilitarian technocratic assessments of cost and benefit rather than on moral positions based in conceptions of the “common good.”
This drift away from moral conceptions of public leadership has been further encouraged by the development of the 24 hour global media and, strikingly, by the advent of the internet age. And in Britain, the media place our business and political leaders under greater critical scrutiny than at any period in history: the media seizes upon their words, deeds and misdeeds, transmitting them via the internet around the world. Opinions, for often they are just that, can quickly become rooted as fact in public perception. Misconceived fact can undermine political action on matters of controversy affecting business and society. Examples include the way in which the media has defined the boundaries of acceptable public discourse on social policy issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, bio-fuels, alternative energy, telephone masts and cancer and social behavioural issues such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
And the international media itself has also changed in response to market forces. Today we refer to the media “market” for communication content. Print and broadcast journalists fight for the stories that will win readers and viewers. The ability of the media to lead and influence public opinion has created disincentives for bold and moral business and political leadership. Furthermore, digital communication enables the creation of self-identified, motivated and like-minded tribes of activist opposition; these tribes have the means and the voice to publish and amplify their views and, in so doing, influence public discourse. In short, today’s business leaders face a contested communication market as they seek to advocate their values, beliefs and policies and attempt to create resonant and persuasive corporate reputation.
Managing corporate reputation has never posed more of a challenge for our business leaders and communicators. Business regulation and law reflect a public discourse that often lacks necessary balance or argument, moderation of language and presentation, rigorous debate and human morality required to create the conditions that enable effective and democratically representative public policy. And bad public policy is bad for business and society. The challenge for business then is to communicate in a way that frames, leads and shapes public discourse and leads to reasoned debate and sensible public policy. Yet from town hall meetings and soapbox to Facebook and Twitter, and from pages of small print detailed broadsheet reporting of business activity and parliamentary debate to sound-bite broadcast coverage, the communications environment in which our business leaders have to persuade stakeholders of the benefits they offer is in constant and fundamental change. In short, today’s corporate communication challenge is ever more complex, multi-disciplinary and time sensitive, while the consequences of ineffective corporate reputation management have never been more threatening and profound. Think BP, Lehman, Enron and Anderson.
So, how can business leaders and communicators create an enlightened and enlightening public discourse in the age of the digital sceptic? How can they shape public discourse so that it becomes helpful to their business, especially in issue areas of policy that excite great controversy, like alcohol, food, health, pharmaceuticals and energy?
To cut through in public discourse our business leaders must understand and master the power of emotion in human communication. To communicate effectively in our contested communication marketplace and, in the process, gain the support of public opinion, business leaders must break with habit and speak from the heart.
They must take the greatest of care with language to create the frames within which public discourse occurs, in essence to “brand” issue areas with positive emotional associations about them and the business they lead. They must learn to utilise the creative visual and linguistic content that is emotionally compelling and persuasive, rather than speak in the dry technical and rational language of business. They must author and promote positive cultural narratives to address the problems of business and society. And, in this age of scepticism, they must build coalitions of support with credible third parties, with partner organisations and, in some cases, even with groups who have been critical of them, so that when it would be ill advised to speak for themselves others can speak for them.
In short, business leaders need to reconcile two central paradoxes as they communicate. They must make the complex simple – the need to communicate the complex and technical concepts of business in “layman’s” language for a wider audience, and the requirement to do so without compromising meaning or creating the appearance of obfuscation. And they must communicate the factual truth about their business while understanding that that are in an emotional battle for public opinion.