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Thanks for having me here at the IABC/DC Awards Gala. It is my pleasure to keynote. I hope that what I have to say enlightens you about the field of business communications and where it might be going.
I was very influenced by the new book Chief Culture Officer, written by Grant McCracken of MIT. It’s not about pop culture, and not about “cool hunting,” but rather about having a broad awareness of slow-paced cultural evolutions that can affect companies, and how to monitor them and incorporate them into planning.
Tonight, I’d like to share five trends which I see that are happening, and overlapping with each other, to change not only business communications, but all communications – government, customer, and so on – and will impact the common social good.
The first cultural shift is that of technology as fashion. Some people call this “the consumerization of IT.” Whatever you call it, this trend has impacted not just technology companies but anyone who interacts with technology companies. In other words, virtually everyone.
When technology becomes not only a way to get things done but also a personal fashion statement, this means two big things. One is that battles between technology competitors will rarely be won on technology quality alone. The other is that influential people outside the “big business, big government” world will impact what technologies those businesses and governments buy and use, even if that’s irrational.
The second cultural shift is that of nobodies as influencers. It used to be that intellectuals like professors and priests were society’s influencers. Then came media personalities, particularly those who broadcast hard news. Then came big celebrities like movie stars. Now, everyone has the potential to be a celebrity, and therefore everyone is a potential influencer.
Whether we’re talking about Spencer and Heidi of The Hills fame, Bristol Palin on Dancing With The Stars, “The Situation” doing gym, tanning, and laundry in New Jersey, or Michaele Salahi crashing a White House party, the choices they make influence a lot of people. Are the children of CEO’s not watching these people, seeing their photos in Star magazine? Do they not want what they have, whether that’s a phone, a purse, or a vacation spot?
You can laugh at The Situation all you want. He’s estimated to earn $5 million this year. And if he loved the new Windows Phone 7 or the new Xbox 360 Kinect, you can bet that would move units.
The third cultural shift is that of Generation Y, particularly those aged under 25, caught in the middle of the Great Recession. I had never heard the term “quarter-life crisis” before a couple of years ago, but now it is quite commonplace. Young people of a certain age are disillusioned with many things, including traditional corporations and their government.
How are they reacting? Besides watching more reality TV, they are also very interested in connecting to each other through new forms of media, expressing themselves openly and often without regard for privacy, adapting to a quickly changing world, collaborating to help each other achieve goals, and thinking about things they can do to help communities in the name of public service and social good rather than the rat race to make the almighty buck.
The fourth cultural shift is that towards a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government at all levels, typically called Government 2.0 or Open Government. This movement, predating but greatly inspired by then-candidate and now President Obama, fits the spirit of the times. It is largely possible because of (1) a massive distrust of authority, (2) disillusionment during a recession, and (3) the rise of cheap software like cloud computing, open source code, and Web 2.0 platforms which empower the masses.
The picture is something called the Web Trend Map, showing relationships between popular Web software platforms, made to look like the New York City subway map – I can’t think of anything more appropriate to show.
Some common values of people involved with Open Government are increasing efficiency of government services, doing more with less, being more thoughtful about how citizens’ money is spent, being more transparent about the inner workings of government, and empowering citizens to participate in their government more than merely voting officials in and forgetting about them for years at a time. This suits the entrepreneurial spirit of many people during the recession.
The fifth cultural shift is that of the do-it-for-me movement to a do-it-yourself one. Whether we are talking about trusting hospitals to take care of you, trusting restaurants to feed you healthy stuff, or trusting governments to take care of public projects, there is a growing distrust of authority, and therefore of the work they do. An increasing number of people are taking matters into their own hands.
There are large movements like Maker Faire, a festival drawing thousands of entrepreneurs, inventors, and tinkerers. They have festivals in California, Detroit, … and Zaire. The man in the bottom left is showing solar-powered traffic lights in Africa. The meet-up at the top is for people in Dallas who are into playing with circuit boards. The book at the bottom is about home schooling. Even the famous Burning Man festival in the desert is ultimately about self sufficiency, ingenuity, and cooperation of communities.
So what does these five interacting, long-term cultural trends mean for business communications? I think they mean four things. The first is that traditional organizations need to be more creative than ever before to stand out in the noisy world of media, and to build trust with an increasingly distrustful audience. If you don’t take risks, you’re gone.
Second, no one is an island anymore. People are collaborating with each other, governments are collaborating with their citizens, and businesses need to collaborate with their customers. Yes – collaborate with customers. Whether that means truly listening to customer feedback, large crowdsourcing operations for innovation, or just better community outreach, if you treat your customers like anonymous receipts and sales leads and income streams and not like human beings, you’re gone.
Third, even if you’re nice to Bob and Jill and Sara, remember that they don’t live in isolation – they are part of a community of people who buy your stuff. They are part of many communities in fact, based on where they live, what gender they are, how much they earn, and whether they bicycle to work or dye their hair. Information spreads within communities like wildfire, on and offline. It has never been more important to acknowledge and try to help communities. If you’re not bringing your community of stakeholders up with you as you rise, you will fall and you’re gone.
Fourth, the commons is a term I am hearing more and more. Hoarding things – data, resources, intellectual property – is frowned upon. Sure, it may be legal, and it may make you profitable, but in the longer-term it may damage your brand to some degree. Obviously not everything can be in the commons, but contributing to the commons is a way to show that you care about the community that lives there. If you don’t contribute anything to the common good, you’re gone.
I think that public service is a broad unifying theme across all of this. Ask yourself: Are you in your job and is your company in the business ecosystem, acting towards public service, public good, and social change in a meaningful way? Is it sincere? Public relations, more and more, is overlapping with aspects of the public sector (used broadly to mean government, nonprofits, and the volunteer sector) and aspects of public service. People are starting to remember to put the “public” back in public relations.
How do you “win” at business communications in the near future? I think you win by showing that you care more than other companies. That caring can come in many forms – thought leadership, great customer service, empowering communities to help themselves, being more transparent about decisions. Indirectly, people show their appreciation for these activities through increased buying, increased loyalty, or increased positive word-of-mouth.
This is not about changing the nature of business. People know businesses have to make a profit, and they accept that. They just want to know that you also care about the people you’re selling to and that you’re not entirely selfish. I like to ask people in marketing departments if they know who their brand’s 10 biggest detractors or fans are. Not demographics. Names of individual people. If you don’t know, in the not so distant future, you’ll be gone – because you don’t care.
I want to leave you with a quotation from one of my favorite gurus, Gary Vaynerchuk, the wine expert turned author and marketing consultant. Sharing is caring. It really might be that simple. Thank you.
Five Cultural Shifts Affecting Business Communications
FIVE CULTURAL SHIFTS