Navigating uncharted seas – communications management for a world out of joint

Acting amid crises, wars, and disasters, communicators today may find themselves observing – like Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet – that “the time is out of joint.” Some of the terms so often heard in public discourse, such as transformation, paradigm shift, or geopolitical tensions, leave no doubt as to that. Concepts and constructs established over decades, like multilateralism and globalization, appear to be up for debate. At the same time, we are seeing a return of the state as a shaper of economic relationships, especially in the context of the efforts to combat climate change. The approach to crisis management during the Covid pandemic has further strengthened this trend. The result? Fifty-one percent of the Germans who were questioned in a representative survey by the online polling agency Civey voiced support for government regulation of prices for electricity, rent, and more. Only 36 percent had faith in the market.

Businesses are increasingly active in an environment in which the core principles of profitability and competition are coming under fire. Meanwhile, the demands being placed on their contributions to society, apart from economic viability, are on the rise, as are the calls for them to take a political stance. Here, two tenets of communication promulgated by John Ruggie – the late UN special representative for business and human rights, who passed away in 2021 – come into play: while comprehensive reporting obligations on ESG standards enable businesses to communicate proactively (“knowing and showing”), the demands being asserted by critical external stakeholders often serve only to chastise and punish them (“naming and shaming”).

The complete upheaval of the process behind generating public attention and opinion in recent years has magnified this effect. Whereas mass media used to act as gatekeepers and aggregators for societal discourse among members of the public audience, social media has played a leading role in the creation of many public audiences that are competing  for the authority to set and interpret the agenda. Especially on politically charged issues, businesses today find themselves increasingly being asked the Gretchenfrage , which requires them to take a stance and document it. Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s lists of companies are one such example. Depending on the issue in question, businesses may find themselves being hailed as a shining example of good citizenship or being brought to the pillory.

The transformation of public relations work (to use the outdated term) “publics” relations  , and the evolution of communications management into communication risk management, brings a particular degree of challenge to one task that used to be part of the PR bread and butter: painting reliable and rational pictures as a point of orientation for approaches and methods of communication. That is all the more true for those responsible for global communications, which inevitably places them in the crosshairs of political conflicts and confrontations. The frequent need to deal with dilemmas and the like necessitates a constant recalibration of statements and positions. What plays a decisive role in the success of these efforts to provide guidance is identifying the fault lines along which the unavoidable deviations between economic realities (such as profitability), societal expectations (such as taking all stakeholder interests into account), and acceptance among an increasingly fragmented public (such as maximum transparency) become incalculable risks. In their diagnosis of modern-day society, sociologists Steffen Mau, Thomas Lux, and Linus Westheuser borrow a term from the world of physical therapy by speaking of “trigger points.”

Recognizing these trigger points, and treating them effectively from a communications standpoint, requires more than ever-finer analyses of the media status quo. Modern AI-based monitoring may help manage the “excessive strain and workload facing nearly every communications department,” as recently described by Lothar Rolke and Jörg Forthmann. But between published and public opinion lies unknown territory, with depths, reefs, and undercurrents. Indeed, the German reputation researcher Manfred Schwaiger has convincingly demonstrated that published opinion is only a weak indicator of public opinion, especially because “many media users are simply not interested in stories on businesses – unless they are entertaining.”

In a time out of joint, communications management takes on a crucial function as a provider of guidance for resilient businesses. Neither seeking comfort in the vagaries of image and philosophy (as a chief purpose officer, for instance) nor a focus on ladder-climbing are any help here. Success comes to those who treat the correct trigger points and keep their eyes on the big picture – unlike Prince Hamlet, who wanted to do it all: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right!”

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