It's been raining, and as I write this, I'm watching the kangaroos over my back fence munching on fresh grass after a brutal summer. Down Under, we had a catastrophic start to 2020. Wildfires destroyed some 30 million acres of bushland in Australia, scores of people died and 1 billion native animals perished. In the nation's capital and my hometown of Canberra, we recorded an all-time high of 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit), and the smoke that shrouded the city for weeks has only just cleared. It's a harsh reminder of the physical and social disruption we face in every corner of the globe. We seem to be constantly and unpleasantly confronted by seismic change at every turn---be it with our weather or in our economies, our political systems or with those institutions we once thought were unshakable. These conditions have brought immense challenges for the modern communicator. And the general disruption in our societies is forging a widening gap between old-school PR and marketing and the new ways of reaching and satisfying audiences. In part, this shift is about social media and technology. Mainly, though, the new way is about citizens, reignited and rapacious hunger for authentic storytelling.
Trust and truth-telling
As long as I have been in journalism and communication, trust and truth-telling have been central. What has changed since everyone became a publisher, though, has been the (in)ability to quickly and adequately discern fact from fiction. Authenticity, truth and trust are far more than buzzwords. They form the currency of this "era of integrity" and are to be ignored at their peril. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer quantifies the increased value we are putting on truth in a world of uncertainty, citing:
- The wider community doesn't trust anyone---not business, not government, not media, not even non-government organizations.
- Half of all markets are avowed "distrusters" (including Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.).
- About three quarters of those surveyed agreed they were concerned about fake news being used as a weapon.
The flip side is the research confirms a continued pattern of employees and the public wanting bosses and companies to take the lead on a raft of issues, including climate change and immigration. This should put a spring in the step of communicators, who can now better position their CEOs and their companies for greater influence.
Build trust with a newsroom approach
Modern communication teams can do this by taking a considered approach and by modelling themselves on the world's best newsrooms. Why newsrooms? Because they are at the top of the content food chain: Content is their reason for being. This effort is more than content marketing by another name. It is about playing the long game. I've defined a five-step SMART way for business leaders and their teams to cut through the information overload using their own resources. SMART stands for:
- STRATEGY: The blueprint for building a fit-for-purpose communication unit.
- MEDIA: The process for determining the weapons of mass communication to deploy in the battle for hearts and minds.
- AUTHENTICITY: The secret sauce for creating content that makes a heartfelt connection with audiences.
- RESULTS: Gauging success by targeting the right metrics.
- TEAM: Mobilizing the X factor: the comms warriors on the front line.
Any organization with a level of communication and marketing grit can reorganize themselves to copy the best practices of newsrooms for greater engagement and recognition. Typically, medium to large-scale enterprises, government and non-government, have the resources to hire the top advertising, marketing and communication agencies. But much of what those suppliers do could be done by leveraging the organization's own resources. Sadly, I see even nonprofits, who can least afford it, follow the same path of wasting resources unnecessarily when they could act marshal the talent within their communities. As timeless standards, the SMART principles are as comfortably applied to any size of organization. They can even be used to raise an individual's profile. A D.I.Y. newsroom particularly suits organizations that have a sense of purpose about what they do. In the course of researching my book, I explored how a cross-section of institutions were getting SMART and dropping outdated communication methods. One of the best examples was at the Australian Football League. Aussie rules is tantamount to a religion in some states, but it's as much a content business as a sport today. In season, AFL Media runs the country's No. 1 sports website, powered by a modern newsroom of 120 staff. In New Zealand, Ryman Healthcare set up a modest newsroom network to communicate to 11,000 residents across more than 30 retirement villages, their families, and a workforce of many thousands of staff and contractors. Ryman's D.I.Y. approach is decidedly non-corporate, but it has proven a perfect fit for the family-orientated company. The comms unit produces about 140 different publications a year (an output akin to a small newspaper publisher), a Facebook page for each village, and a host of other communications. The team has also produced clever video spoofs of Pharrell Williams's "Happy" (below) and elderly residents twerking to Taylor Swift, which have been wildly popular on the internet.
Local government authorities are proving the perfect candidates for a D.I.Y. newsroom. Ipswich and Bundaberg, big councils in regional Queensland, are telling their stories with more punch via their own news platforms, eschewing old-style, town hall communication. Other councils are following their lead. Beaconhills College, an independent college in Melbourne, recast its team and way of working and enjoyed a 60% surge in web traffic in 18 months. With a news room, you control the message (you can't on Facebook, which is notorious for changing its algorithms and hence how you rank). It's cheaper than a lot of traditional marketing and, once you have momentum, your organization and its people will become authorities in their niche, the thought leaders. A back-to-basics D.I.Y. approach is relatively simple if you follow the system. It reflects the timeless truths of communication, but there's flexibility to respond to the constantly changing information landscape. Along those lines, here are five insights to keep in mind.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail
More than ever, if you want a return on investment from your communication efforts, you must be strategic. Unless a missile is trained on your forehead, you have time to plan. Scattershot comms get the results they deserve. I suspect we'll see that play out in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, with the spoils going to the simplest, most on-message and direct campaign.
The best storytelling comes from the soul
The people who best know an organization's narrative are those who work for it. Consultants and agencies are fine to engage to get things moving, to facilitate discussions and to implement the impossible. But when it comes to storytelling, the gold is in capturing the essence of the everyday. That's not rocket science, but it does require an intimate understanding, feel and appreciation of how an organization ticks. Do it from within.
Make people feel great again
Do you find your communication always pointed at the crisis of the day? Do you bemoan the lack of time to proactively build reputation and connection? It can be difficult to break away from the squeaky-wheel stuff or the latest social media vanity project, but a well-oiled comms team can make a profound and positive contribution to the mood and culture of an organization. It should be easy to sit down over a coffee and quickly identify a dozen heart-warming stories.
Communicators deserve a place at the head table
Communicators do not always get their rightful place in an organization because of a lack of appreciation, internal politics or structural dysfunction. But no organization can expect optimal business performance without comms placed centrally. Communication is the oxygen that give life to a business's deeper meaning.
Find your reputational sweet spot
The Edelman research implores organizations and their leaders to get in the game. But what is the game? What does your organization stand for? What is its social purpose? Audiences do not want to hear more hollow corporate messaging or glorified brand promotion. Even worse is when an organization tries to confect a social purpose but there's a mismatch between what the company says and how it behaves. Find the sweet spot and anything is possible. As the world spins faster and more furiously, one option is to jump into the slipstream and follow everyone else. A better option for the modern communicator is counter-intuitive. That is, to instead slow down to find the time, courage and head space to establish the most authentic way to connect with the communities of interest that matter to us.
Stuart Howie is a member of IABC Canberra and author of The DIY Newsroom. He is a former news executive and runs a communication consultancy. IABC members receive an exclusive 25% discount on the hardback version of The DIY Newsroom. The DIY Newsroom was named Social Media and Technology Book of the Year at the 2019 Australian Business Book Awards. Go to diynewsroom.com and use the coupon code IABCSHIFT2020 to secure the offer.