Next stop sunlit uplands? – Transformation needs communication and patience

In October, a team at the University of Leipzig headed up by Ansgar Zerfaß published a study that revealed – not for the first time – a considerable lack of trust and understanding among the German and European populace for those who are mainly responsible for creating public opinion: only just over eight percent of all Germans trust communicators and the PR industry. And with trust rates hovering around 17 percent, journalists don’t come off much better. By way of comparison, external consultants and academics score 37 percent. In all European countries, 36 percent believe that the main objective of communications management is to guide communications toward a specific outcome. Only 26 percent believe that PR’s main objective is the establishment of constructive dialogue.

Given the significance that media and communications now have in our private and public lives, these are truly sobering findings. Their paradoxical message seems to be: “Long live well-executed communication, but down with professional communicators” – whether the latter be PR managers or journalists. We are experiencing this in an age in which decision makers in business and politics regularly highlight the contradiction between correct decisions made on merits and the lack of proper communication. No matter whether we are dealing with ambitious political reforms, investments running into the billions, strategic acquisitions, or appointments to top jobs in political parties or companies, these are always immediately accompanied by the demand for rapid, transparent, and truthful communication, and not solely to inform people, but also to get them on board, with all their hopes and fears, ideas and criticisms.

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 is a good opportunity to underscore the social significance of well-executed communication and, at the same time, to warn of the risks of communication failures. Indeed, German reunification itself – including the events leading up to it in both East and West – is an object lesson in how communication should – and should not – be done. It starts with the unmasking of the GDR regime following the discovery of electoral fraud in the May 7, 1989, local elections (documented on thousands of flyers distributed across the GDR), continues with the competition between the late-socialist narratives of Mikhail Gorbachev (“Life punishes those that come too late” on October 6, 1989) and Erich Honecker (“Ever onwards, no retreat” on October 7, 1989), and culminates in the political slogan chanted millions of times by the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig (first “We are the people,” then “We are one people”).

Yet ironically, the opening of the Wall on November 9 itself was a communicative blunder of historical proportions. Asked when the new rules for travel outside the GDR would take effect, the SED official Günter Schabowski stammered: “To my knowledge, they come into… it’s immediate, without delay.” In fact, the plan was for this to happen on November 10, and the resulting storm of people took the GDR border police completely by surprise. Schabowski had got his wires crossed.

For communicators, the events of 30 years ago are even more interesting when we look at reunification for what is essentially was: a immense social transformation that – notwithstanding all the spontaneous rejoicing about regained freedom and a unified state – triggered exactly the kinds of reaction we know from social psychology: shock, denial, rational understanding, emotional acceptance, trial and error, adaptation, integration. Riding roughshod over these feelings creates a sense of grievance. The former Federal President Joachim Gauck gave expression to this in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “People who had just been the the victors suddenly found themselves in the role of novices who had to be shown the ropes by others who were more or less experts.” He went on: “This abrupt shift from ‘We are the people’ to ‘Take us by the hand’ was hard to swallow.” And indeed, what is needed here is transformation management – including respectful communication – that does much more than merely formulate a glorious vision of sunlit uplands and focus solely on creature comforts in the former East Germany.

As early as the 1990s, John P. Kotter, the Harvard professor who is one of the leading thinkers in transformation research, identified “eight big errors in transformation.” They include the lack of vision, undercommunicating the vision, and declaring victory too soon.

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