Cui bono? Risk competence as a success factor in strategic communications

Making decisions under time pressure and without complete information while anticipating the consequences is in the nature of communication management. Still, the complexity and dynamics of this role have grown significantly in the age of digital communication networks and social media. Alongside the skyrocketing quantitative growth of media offerings, factors such as selection criteria in the attention economy are especially important here. These factors are not new, but their impact is more important in a period of fundamental change. As a study published in Political Communication in the fall of 2020 on the basis of 300,000 reports in English-language media on scientific and academic topics such as climate change and the repercussions of migration shows, there is a media bias toward emphasizing dissent even where there is general consensus. Just 3 percent of the reports analyzed explicitly refer to the fact of majority consensus. Conflict generates more attention, and media platforms that set the stage for conflict or offer access to it are in high demand. The pressure on companies to get involved is mounting.

At the same time, expectations around companies’ contributions to society and CEOs’ involvement in hot-button public debates have grown. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that the business sector is viewed most favorably across society worldwide, at 61 percent, even as trust in elites wanes. Dave Samson of Edelman concludes that there is “a leadership vacuum that CEOs need to fill.” A recommendation by the Wittenberg Center for Global Ethics on corporate activism has thrown this expectation into even sharper relief, with a nod to Paul Watzlawick: “Companies can’t not take a stand.”

The decision-making situations that communication management currently faces with some regularity in this environment of heightened media attention and coverage and more-stringent societal expectations for companies are also made tougher by the inability to predict environmental conditions. There is no golden rule for making the right decision in these kinds of complicated situations with multiple risks and opportunities. The naïve optimism of the famed Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide – who trusted blindly in divine providence and that things would turn out well “in the best of all possible worlds” – doesn’t help, and neither does the fundamental pessimism Adrian Daub refers to in What Tech Calls Thinking (2020): Communication is supposed to solve problems that are created by communication in the first place.

Psychologist and risk researcher Gerd Gigenzer says what is needed in a society that increasingly faces new challenges and uncertainties is more individual “risk competence.” What he means by that is “the ability to cope with situations in which not all risks are known and calculable.”

Sibylle Anderl, an astrophysicist and science journalist, points to the pandemic and recommends that in situations like these, decision-making strategies should be aimed at robustness: “People should look for decisions that are never completely wrong, however the uncertainty may turn out.” She thinks “constantly comparing expectations against events and adjusting the original strategy dynamically to account for developments” is necessary.

Clearly, this kind of “risk-competent” communication management can never lose sight of the company’s legitimate interests, even as it strives to reach societal acceptance. It is important to respond to a legitimate counter-argument here. Is the public willing to accept risk mitigation as a decision-making parameter on matters relating to a company’s communication policies? A recently published study by Kerstin Thummes and Peter Winkler based on a representative survey offers interesting insight here: “Most respondents agree, at least to a slight degree, that transparency cannot be ensured without secrecy and the same rules of responsible action cannot apply in every situation.”

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