Why today's communicators need big EARS

The way we communicate has changed forever. Sure, we now have a whole suite of online tools we’d never dreamed of not so long ago. But the changes go much deeper than the tools themselves.

We know that our audiences and consumers are now the co-creators of our identify and brand; our ‘prosumers’, if you will. Businesses and organisations can no longer make decisions behind closed doors and deign to tell the rest of the world when they feel like it; the ‘decide and tell’ era has given way to the social media age, with the world able to see deeply into our business. Organisations must face the reality of making mistakes in real time on a global stage.

We also know that the CEO – once all-powerful in terms of influencing the reputation of a business – has now had to yield to the ‘regular employee’ as the keeper of the keys to the kingdom of the brand. Put simply, people are more influenced by a person like themselves than someone who happens to have a fancy title.

The era of ‘spin’ – when we could put a bit of lip gloss on our business problems and portray a positive face to the world – has collapsed in the push towards authenticity and transparency. We can’t just say we’re great, we have to actually be great.

Communicating effectively used to be all about having a solid strategy; with objectives, key messages, clearly defined audiences and carefully developed tactics.

That’s given way to a much more broadly reaching platform; we can’t think of ‘communication’ in isolation. It cuts across every facet of an organisation and must be an accurate reflection of everyday business behaviour. Now, to be truly effective we need well-developed EARS.

1. Essence of your brand

What does the DNA of your organisation look like? If everything else were to be stripped away, what quality or aspiration would remain as the lingering essence? I’m talking at a level beyond values. What is at the core of what your business stands for?

Your essence is crucial to the way you communicate, because now – without ‘spin’ as a crutch – we need to be completely real and authentic at all times. What we say must be fully congruent with the essence of our brand; otherwise we’ll be exposed as clearly as someone who says one thing but gestures with their body in the opposite direction. Our ‘business body language’ will be out of alignment and people will quickly sniff out the falseness of our words. There’s nowhere to hide in this era of transparency.

Once we’ve distilled the essence of our brand, we must aim to reflect it in everything we say and do. Not only will this build trust and ‘reputation capital’, it will stand us in good stead in the event of an issue or crisis. There’s a school of thought around the idea of ‘forgiveability’; people will forgive you for many things (provided you come clean and take immediate action), but they’ll be far less forgiving if the issue strikes at the heart of the essence of your brand.

You can, in fact, use this as a gift; if a negative issue arises, one way of gauging the size of your problem is to identify how strongly it impacts on your brand essence. Think of this; industrial action at Qantas delays flights and causes passengers to grumble, but late flights don’t necessarily strike at the essence of Qantas’s brand – which is safety. However, a significant safety issue involving a Qantas flight would have a different outcome for the airline. That was the case back in 2010 when there was a series of mishaps involving Qantas flights. An analysis of online discussion at the time found that “Qantas had suffered reputational damage, which could amount to tangible financial loss, through commentary on social media.”

So, think about your essence. Distill it, identify it, and ensure it exudes through all your communication. And, act immediately if any issue arises that might compromise that essence.

2. Awareness

Colin James is an amazing speaker who uses the anablep – a bizarre South American fish with two sets of eyes, one directed above the water line and one below – to illustrate how trainers need to be aware of everything going on in their classroom. I like to apply that same fish analogy to how organisations must behave in today’s reputation-driven economy. Like the anablep, you need two sets of eyes; one scanning the horizon for any external issues that might impact your business, and the second keenly trained inside your walls. These days, environmental scanning – including social listening – isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. As I read recently in Forbes magazine, “Be ready to monitor the evolution of your reputation on a daily basis and never stop listening.”

That monitoring needs to extend far beyond checking for negative comments on social media. Remember, people have actual conversations too. Being tapped into your audience’s networks will give you vital insights to guide your communications.

And if an issue or crisis is going to develop, there’s a good chance it will spring up from within. Never underestimate the potential for well-meaning people to do dumb things. I’ve seen businesses traumatised by criminal activity involving staff, organisations blown apart by feuding at the executive level, and academic institutions thrust into the media courtesy of misguided decisions. Don’t think it can’t happen. Know what’s going in, inside and out. Be aware.

What tools or strategies do you have to do that?

3. Relationships

No secret about this one; we’ve never been more networked. In fact, we’re operating in a whole ecosystem of influence. Our audiences shape our messages with their own twist, then handball them on to the next person in the chain – and without impeccable, robust relationships based on trust, our communication will spiral out of control in a global game of whispers.

Our challenge is, how do we keep up with this online ecosystem without losing the personal touch? Recently, I’ve found myself recommending to clients that, as a strategy, they initiate a conversation with someone to address a particular issue. Hardly earth-shattering, but at times it feels like we are losing that art.

Practise real conversations, with actual people. Encourage those around you to do the same. Choose face-to-face over virtual whenever you can.

Not so long ago, our communication strategies involved targeting particular audiences and analysing how to reach them. That game is already over. We’re reaching them, whether we’re trying to or not. The real strategy is discovering how we can smoothly ebb and flow in this powerful ecosystem, contributing to the global debate and remaining a voice of truth without compromising the essence of our brand.

4. Systems

Not the sexiest aspect of our ‘ears’, but crucial just the same. The Reputation Institute writes that those organisations with the strongest reputations globally have systematised ways of integrating reputation-building into their very ways of being.

A 2012 study found that only 4% of businesses have elevated reputation into their decision-making, strategy, and operations, yet, “regardless of where a company’s current reputation sits, a rigorous and systematic approach to reputation management can, in fact, yield a demonstrable competitive advantage.” (The Reputation Edge,www.reputationinstitute.com)

If communication and reputation-buiilding can no longer be a quarantined to one part of an organisation, how do we integrate them across the business? What structure do we need, what training and processes to ensure our key people are superior communicators, and what strategies to grow our awareness, build relationships and make sure everything we do reflects our brand essence?

If you’re not already thinking along these lines, it’s time to start. Traditional ideas about communication have been blown wide open. It’s a new game, and we all need advanced skills.

My advice: start with the EARS and go from there.