January 3, 2017
2016 in review – What global corporates can learn from a year of political upheaval
The global political landscape was reshaped more in the last twelve months than at any stage since the Second World War. From the shock of Brexit to the irrepressible rise of President-elect Donald Trump, electorates across the Western World roundly rejected many political ideals – liberalism, globalisation, free trade – that had become central features of the modern global economy. However, as most of us begin the New Year with a mixture of apprehension and intrigue, it is important for the communications profession to understand what drove this political shift in order to successfully apply such learnings to our client work in 2017.
Communicating in a ‘post-truth’ era
As the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’, it is perhaps best to begin with the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics – framing a debate by appealing to emotion rather than fact. Or, as the Financial Times expertly put it in a recent analysis of political language, the “production of heat rather than light”. Much has been made of this phenomenon and the success it has played in bringing Nigel Farage, for example, to the forefront of the global political arena. This is despite arguably lacking implementable policies – just ask Britain’s NHS!
And yet it would be incredibly naïve for global companies to think they can shape their communications in a similar way. Blue-chip corporates will now be more defined by the integrity of their operations and the openness in which they engage considering the clear public distrust of major institutions. Without this clarity, they are exposing themselves to huge risk. This was illustrated perfectly by the troubles faced by Deutsche Bank and Glencore last year, to name but two. Both companies were pushed to the brink by financial markets due a perceived lack of transparency with regards their operations and had to radically alter their external communications approach to survive.
There is, however, one element of ‘post-truth’ politics that should be embraced by global corporates. Amid the glut of information – and misinformation – that is readily available online, and a public audience that absorbs a continuous 24/7 news cycle, there needs to be a greater emphasis on accessible and consistent messaging when communicating with stakeholders. Love him or loathe him, Mr. Trump’s message to US voters was clear – let’s ‘make America great again’. This simple slogan grew in strength every time his rival, Hillary Clinton, struggled to articulate her more defined but complex policies, or failed to adequately explain the email scandal that engulfed her throughout her campaign.
Businesses could certainly adapt the President-elect’s approach and shift away from the guff that plagues modern corporate dialect. The investment community loves its acronyms but they are not solely the people that buy a company’s product or service, or seek to work for them. Corporate communications must re-evaluate the strategic importance of appealing to all stakeholders, particularly the general public, and seek to appeal to a broader audience moving forward.
This doesn’t necessarily mean companies should change their communications priorities. Leading businesses must continue to take a public stance on important matters relating to themselves, their industry and the wider public good. Our role as communications advisors is to ensure that this conveys leadership and a sense of purpose. Just look at Marine Le Pen – her strong views on terrorism and immigration may not resonate with every corner of the French electorate, yet through simple delivery and repetition, she now owns a position within a crowded debate that gives her a valuable edge over some rivals ahead of the French Presidential Elections later year.
A comparison to Apple is likely to draw bemusement, but the company’s stand against piracy earlier this year displays similarities. Fronted personally by chief executive Tim Cook in much the same way that Ms. Le Pen is the mouthpiece of her National Front party, Apple was unwavering in its opposition against FBI demands to gain access to iPhones, presenting its position in easy-to-understand, everyday language that centred on its refusal to ‘build a backdoor’ to their products. Both campaigns, although incredibly different, have succeeded in capturing the attention of their target audience.
Finally, like their political counterparts, leading executives are expected more than ever to exhibit strong, visible leadership in times of crisis. Anything less can result in severe public backlash. David Cameron’s swift political demise following the result of the EU Referendum should be a warning to business leaders who over-promise and under deliver. And by the same token, our politicians – particularly newly-elected ones – should be acutely aware of Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf’s dramatic fall from grace. Mr. Stumpf’s inability to show true leadership, combined with his failure to ensure his organisation’s actions matched their well-publicised corporate standards, cost him and his bank both financially and in terms of public trust.
So when businesses leaders look ahead after one of the most exciting and unpredictable years in modern global politics, they would be wise to consider the communications strategies of their civil-service contemporaries, particularly as both groups will play decisive hands as their fates become increasingly intertwined in 2017.