Headline attraction

Adrian Warr looks at how understanding different communications environments helps leaders to succeed

There has never been a time when the economy and business have been so dominant in the media and political landscape. Business stories are now headline news which means business leaders can find themselves turned overnight into media celebrities –  or villains. As some of our leading business figures have recently found to their discomfort, it is easy to become the lightning rod for media or political anger, no matter how unfair you might believe the attacks.

With the economy in the state it is and the impact of past business recklessness on the lives and livelihoods of people across the country, you might argue that this is no surprise. But it’s a trend that actually pre-dates the financial crisis.

The reasons are simple. Big business has a far larger and more obvious role in our societies. Brands have become part of everyday life with companies spending vast quantities of time, money and energy to be front of mind.   But it isn’t all one way traffic. We also expect corporates to be more than just profit making machines, demanding they demonstrate social responsibility in the way they behave.

This is all set against a consumer environment that has been revolutionised by the internet. The digital world has provided everyone with access to a constant flow of information on every topic imaginable, providing a window into a business world that had previously been largely hidden from view to those not in it. More importantly, it has also given consumers a voice, allowing anybody to become a journalist or activist attacking any company at will and to attract like-minded people and groups to their campaign.

Helped by the disastrous economic backdrop which restricts political freedom of manoeuvre, business has also become the hot political issue. Politicians are highly effective communicators who have mastered the art of delivering messages on the topics that matter to their voters.  And the issues that are increasingly on those voters’ minds are related to business and the economy. Few politicians can resist the urge to jump on the bandwagon.

The result of all these factors has been not only greater prominence for the business world, but also a much broader interest in it.  Good companies have recognised this as a huge opportunity. But from a crisis communications point of view it obviously has important implications.

In this environment, businesses – and their leaders – can no longer plan on avoiding the spotlight. Politicians are under constant pressure to be seen to be keeping a cynically perceived business world in check. The media is actively hunting for business scandals with a hunger that used to be reserved only for politician and celebrities. Business leaders can find themselves personally in the firing line.

Nor should companies console themselves any longer that these high profile crises and media storms are the sole preserve of mega-brands. Even the most obscure business-to-business firm can suddenly, if they are unlucky, find themselves under the sharpest public and political scrutiny.

What has also become clear is that, in today’s communications environment, the transition from business issue to political maelstrom to online consumer boycott can happen at lightning speed. Consumer, political and business worlds have converged. So businesses absolutely need to understand the impact of an issue in Westminster, on Fleet Street or on the high street.

But even more importantly, they have to understand how those three factors affect each other. This requires a new type of crisis communications team to understand the sophisticated interplay of politics, business, consumers and media.

As business communications, especially in times of crisis, increasingly spread out of the traditional City pages, they begin to share space with politicians and consumers who communicate in a very different way. Corporates need to change style and keep pace to avoid conspicuously being the odd one out. But all too often they are failing to do so.

Businesses could learn a great deal from these ever more closely entwined audiences. By comparison they can sometimes appear be slow to react, out-of-touch and even condescending. Tone, speech, and consistency all matter as well as substance.

In this new space, businesses can find themselves communicating with less knowledgeable audiences and have less space to do so. Precise and concise messaging is more important than ever.

What’s more, now that the boundaries have broken down, it is clear that the trend is irreversible. Even when the economy recovers, business will continue to increase in prominence. Smart companies will adapt and change how they communicate.  They will learn to provide integrated responses to issues. They will reduce operational silos and long bureaucratic lines of sign off.

They will learn to be fluid and operate more like the NGOs and citizen groups that are attacking them. Others will be forced to cope with the toxic mix of consumer backlash combined with political grandstanding.

It can seem overwhelming. It can also be both deeply unpleasant and time-consuming for those involved. No one, not even the most battle-hardened politician, enjoys finding themselves a victim of what can seem a political and media witch hunt. But good preparation and an understanding of the way the once different environments are now inter-linked can make it easier for companies – and the leaders – to survive and thrive.

Adrian Warr is Partner in Portland’s Communications practice. He has advised some of the world’s biggest brands on issues management and brand reputation.