Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016: A Communicator's Role in Times of Brinkmanship

Donald Trump is making headlines all over the world for what many call his blasphemous remarks. And if the primary polls are any indication, those remarks seem to be working in his favour. Well sure, they won’t win him the Nobel Peace Prize but he doesn’t care as long as he gets the votes.


And look all around us on what is making news. Media outlets in many countries are choosing sensationalism over pragmatism – a phenomenon referred to as the tabloidization of news. The fact is that it’s getting them more eyeballs. So should Trump’s popularity come as a surprise?

Welcome to the age of brinkmanship.

What does this mean for communicators. The high priestesses and priests of communications have often advocated the need to be politically correct. It is conventional wisdom and has saved many from needless controversies.

But is that what the millennials expect from reputed brands – to act as bystanders? They would prefer to follow a leader who is decisive, direct, ready to stand up for what she or he believes is right. Let diplomacy be left to the diplomats. These indications are clear from the millennials support for taking contentious issues head on – whether it was the support for a clear majority for Narendra Modi in India in 2014 general elections or the support for the laws protecting gay rights in the United States.

Being direct does not mean being abrasive. As long as the argument is based on hard facts and the tone isn’t condescending or disrespectful to those who oppose us, there is no reason for one’s opinion to be perceived as harsh or insensitive.

Communicators can lead the charge in 2016

Can corporate reputation be built on being unabashed about what the company believes is right for the larger good. Most communicators would say – yes, of course. But are we, as communicators, ready to lead the charge? That’s a question many of us need to ask ourselves.

For instance, how many corporates in the United States have come out to speak on the gun control debate inspite of the number of shooting incidents in the last year? There have been voices but those are primarily of non-profits. Walmart CEO, Doug McMillon was among few in corporate America who spoke up. 


Some would argue that a person or company’s directness may be perceived by another as brazenness. It’s true that this may be a cultural phenomenon. For instance most Asian cultures believe in being more discreet about one’s views if it’s likely to lead to even the slightest opposition. But what that has done is to embolden the extremists because they believe no-one has the guts to stand up to them. The voice of reason has to be as loud if not louder than the voice of the irrational and the radicals.
As communicators we have a responsibility to society. We often let the fear of being dragged into any unnecessary controversy cloud our thoughts and weaken our efforts.

An interesting example is that of Facebook in India which is in the eye of a storm for speaking up on what it believes is right for mass penetration of the internet. Its Free Basics offering is being attacked in India by those who claim that it contradicts the principle of net neutrality. Personally, I believe consumers are intelligent enough to make their choice for accessing the internet as long as all the facts are placed in front of them in a transparent manner. Without getting into the net neutrality debate, the point to emphasize is that companies should stand up for what they believe is right not just for their customers but for society at large.

That would only add to the credibility of communications as a function. Some believe that it’s too big a reputational risk at stake. However, communicators should feel empowered to lead the charge in advocating the cause of societal reform both within the company and outside. 

Perhaps 2016 could be the opportune time when communicators step out from the shadows and play a more visible role in championing societal issues.