Over the past 18 months, the interplay between communications and government has taken on a heightened importance. A rapidly evolving communications landscape is altering how countries both govern and connect with their constituents around the world, with far-reaching effects for corporate communicators.
Direct-to-citizen platforms like Twitter have fuelled populist ire, from the Philippines to France to the U.S., where the President circumvents traditional media and government channels to command the attention of millions directly. These platforms, in turn, have given rise to personal “media echo chambers,” through which people validate their existing beliefs and shut out opposing points of view and, the opportunity for informed debate.
The collapse of traditional media is driving much of this change. Consider that in just the last four years the number of newsroom employees has declined 10 percent per year to a point where, according to the Pew Research Center, there are now fewer than 33,000 employees in the sector. At the same time, newsrooms, corporate communications departments and agencies are evolving to accommodate consumers’ evolving consumption habits on an ever-growing range of digital platforms and devices.
Forty-two percent of American adults get their news through Facebook several times a day, compared to 20 percent who rely on traditional news sources, according to Morning Consult. Yet they don’t always believe the news they see there. A Reuters Institute report found that only one-quarter of people believe social media does a good job of separating fact from fiction.
Perhaps most troubling is the widespread collapse in trust, in both media and government, at the core of these revolutions. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that media is now distrusted in 80 percent of the 28 countries we surveyed, while government is the least-trusted institution across the globe. Only 41 percent of people worldwide trust government to do what is right — it is no longer considered to be an effective force for change.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Business is one of the last institutions with a measure of trust from stakeholders, giving it both the permission to engage and the opportunity to fill the leadership void left by government. The Edelman Trust Barometer also confirms that even as the general population’s trust in business is down, their expectations for what business should contribute to the greater good have increased. Three out of four general population respondents agree that a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve the social and economic conditions of the community where it operates.
This expectation for business leadership means that the role of communications has never been more relevant. This plays out in numerous ways.
We’ve seen particular change in the ways that corporations interact with society, how they engage and communicate on a civic level. PayPal canceled its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the state passed the “bathroom bill,” which banned the creation of anti-discrimination policies based on gender identity. Starbucks plans to hire 25,000 immigrants in response to President Trump’s immigration ban, while GE actively hires U.S. military veterans who face challenges transitioning from active duty to civilian life. More than 60 Fortune 500 companies — including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Unilever — signed a letter urging President Trump to confirm the Paris climate agreement, demonstrating a new corporate commitment to taking action on some of the most vital issues of the day.
These kind of initiatives are opportunities for every business to take its communications to new levels by filling the government leadership gap. In a time of widespread distrust, companies should consider addressing the societal concerns that matter to their stakeholders, whether it’s by working to improve long-term economic and social conditions of communities; creating public forums for debate of policies; or by talking directly and honestly about the benefits — and addressing the downsides — that business can bring through industry and innovation.
To be sure, business communicators have their work cut out for them, as today’s communications tools are double-edged swords. As Tom Friedman wrote in his book Thank You for Being Late: “Social media is great for collective sharing, but not always so great for collective building. Good for collective destruction, but maybe not so good for collective construction.”
Business is in prime position to build, taking up the mantle where government left off. Communicators must advise business leaders and demonstrate an organization’s progress against specific goals, deploying both owned and social media channels to educate, encourage dialogue, and give people solutions to their fears — and reasons for hope.
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