In a dilemma – communication management as a vocation in a new era

References to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity as defining parameters are part of the debate on the future of communication management. Global financial crises, digital disruption, accelerating climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and emerging stakeholder capitalism are concrete proof of an increasingly opaque environment presenting both opportunities and risks – especially for business. The sociologist Ulrich Beck referred to the transition from a traditional industrial society to a catastrophic society, in which a state of emergency is increasingly the norm.

Beck, who died in 2015, could not have foreseen the shift in the fundamental signposts in this terrain, which is especially tough to navigate for international communication management, over the past ten years. Economic globalization is facing widespread criticism, and even the principle of multilateralism in international politics is being called into question, as the war in Ukraine is tragically showing. As a result, international companies are expending more and more effort to operate globally connected supply chains under constant scrutiny. Meanwhile, worldviews and interests between nations – and within societies – are much more divergent than in previous decades.

As we are seeing in the news on a daily basis, particularly in Germany, this postmodern scenario poses new challenges for communication and management, as well as for political leadership. The buzzwords here are robustness and resilience. Both approaches – the concept of robustness, which focuses on stability and protecting existing structures and processes, and resilience, which is mainly about flexibility and adaptation – require new input from communication management. Our discipline is less and less about clearly defined tasks with an obvious goal, such as reputation building or crisis management. Instead, it is more about tackling dilemmas through the balanced positioning of a company between old and new legitimacy requirements, between short-term and long-term success factors, and between economic, ecological, and social impacts.

Because the number of human and artificial actors has veritably exploded, along with the number of often contradictory demands and expectations, we find ourselves in a communication environment in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to realistically assess situations. “Volatile societies rapidly reach operating temperatures,” is how the constitutional lawyer Udo die Fabio describes the resulting communication climate. This makes it all the more important to base one’s own actions on clearly defined criteria and moral principles. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is quoted by TIME Magazine as saying: “If you are a good leader, you listen to the people, but you never think they really want you to do exactly what they propose.” Wolfgang Schäuble thinks it is equally crucial “to hear what people have to say, but not to always say what they want to hear.”

Likewise, it is not sufficient in business or political communication to merely satisfy demand. Sitting between the chairs will increasingly be the uncomfortable position in which companies, too, find themselves in the eyes of the public. In terms of its nature and its approach, corporate communication is becoming more and more like risk management, a tool used to balance business success, which is vital in the short term, with the need for social acceptance in the long term. Consequently, resilience through communication management requires resilience in communication management. Above all, it demands that in corporate communications we continuously compare the data-based analysis of outside views with values-based self-perceptions. It also requires the willingness not only to build up well-earned reputations, but also to invest them, as well as the strength to face the headwinds of social discourse in order to stand up for beliefs without underestimating the associated risks. In this new era, communication management as a vocation is – as Max Weber put it in “Politics as a Vocation” in 1919 – “strong, slow drilling through hard boards with both passion and judgment.”

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