How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Engagement

2  The Issue Of Trust

A few years ago I came close to losing faith in the discipline of communications. Problems arose that our hitherto powerful comms methods seemed unable to address. How come? We had the messages, we had the reach and the frequency.

Unfortunately we had lost the trust.

Working in government comms for over 20 years it’s easy to forget about trust. Generally, people trust government departments and agencies (politicians still have a problem, of course).

Even in these cynical times, the vast majority of Australians don’t believe the conspiracy theories about fluoridating water or monitoring people’s data. Even the biggest conspiracy theory of all regarding climate change seems in the process of abandonment by all but the most committed deniers.

Nonetheless, government can lose the trust of the community when it’s seen to be implementing a controversial policy, or looks confused, disorganized or lazy. In my own Road to Damascus experience, government was seen to be wrong-headed, high handed and invasive. After 12 months of this there was very little trust left.

What I learned from this situation is that sometimes you have to acknowledge that your comms isn’t going to be enough, stop trying to persuade people and start engaging with them.

Since then I’ve been trained in engagement techniques, which I’ve used in a variety of situations. I now see comms and engagement related, and complementary in many ways, but as coming from very different places.

Communications – at least as I was taught it 20 years or so ago – works from the premise that the communicator acts on a target audience. The basis of engagement, on the other hand, is about working with the stakeholders.

Once I started thinking along these lines, it really struck me that communications was somewhat warlike – think of the language – ‘target audiences’, ‘campaigns’, ‘strategy’, ‘penetration’, ‘hits’. We’re not such a violent lot really, but I think communications is in the business of seeking power over people – their knowledge, their attitudes, their choices – by firing off our messages at them. Certainly those of us in government are doing this for the greater good.

On the other hand, with engagement we start from the position that we don’t have a monopoly of truth or moral authority. We have stuff to bring, you have stuff to bring; let’s both bring our stuff and see what we can achieve.

History – even fairly recent – suggests that government could once get its way because it was ‘the expert’, it had the power, and it was perceived by the community to have a mandate – and the community by and large felt it had to accept what it did.

That era is over, and governments now have to accept that they too need social license to operate.

Communications is still powerful and hopefully, for government, a powerful force for good, but it only works when the trust is there. When trust is lost, comms loses its mojo and becomes just words. And that’s where engagement comes in.



Push them out … or work it out?

As a community and society, our civility is always tested if someone offends our norms of behaviour and presents a threat.

It should go without saying that the tools of good consultation are capable of actually alleviating any threat, changing offending behaviour and retaining our civility, all while achieving mutual gains.

Oddly, more often than not, this is not the solution we reach for.

Take for example the way some of Melbourne’s media recently pandered to prejudices by screaming outrage at street beggars after one “crazed” person was pictured aggressively harassed pedestrians.

Clearly, something should be done. But what response was offered?

To protect our centrally-heated, off-the-streets lifestyle in this most liveable city, the suggested solution was to get tough and eject these “professionals” from plying a street trade.

Sure, homeless people sleeping rough outside your store is a real problem that traders don’t deserve; and no-one deserves being accosted on our liveable streets.

But are we seriously to believe – as Melbourne’s famous winter winds bite – that it is a choice to sleep rough and beg “professionally”.

While it may satisfy some stereotypical views, asking police to “get tough” is most likely to displace, suppress and aggravate the problem for another day.

Instead, the tools of engagement and consultation would allow us to approach the issue as a shared problem that may be resolved by a shared solution.

Skilled, facilitated community negotiation is far more likely to achieve a lasting solution for all. It would seek a solution by bringing key parties around a table. This would include police, and State Government, Councils, Community/Welfare services and mental health services.

This is harder work than just “getting tough”. But we have the skills to do this and it’s the kind of work that would achieve resolutions that afford us our desired civility, and our liveability.


The Case for Thought Leadership

Consumers are constantly bombarded with messages by savvy brand marketers in an effort to ‘engage’ at every opportunity. And the noise is deafening.

Targeting an audience is easier than ever before with no end of online metrics, analytics and geo-tracking to ensure more visibility of consumer preferences, habits and behaviours.

But what happens once you actually track down that elusive target audience? Do they know your brand? How do they perceive your brand? And, most importantly, do they trust your brand and the various values you espouse?

Enter Thought Leadership.

Thought Leadership, in its most basic, unadulterated form, is about offering a meaningful contribution to a topic, issue or discussion.

You need to take a leading position, make an impact and challenge the status quo.

You also need to implement authentic communication which will, in time, shape consumer perception of a brand.

But this won’t happen overnight.

You need a considered, strategic approach to build a profile, take a leading position and ‘own’ the conversation rather than just being an observer.

This continuous conversation must be supported by consistent and genuine messaging, and backed by research, by innovation or by the people behind the brand who are experts in their chosen fields.

All these elements, and more, are required to genuinely position your brand as a Thought Leader.

Marketing can put your brand in front of the right audience, but it’s up to communication professionals to ensure the interaction is meaningful.

RMKA’s expertise in developing Thought Leadership positions will enable your brand to build and sustain this interaction.


Yes, reputation matters

Does it really matter when a major television channel allegedly conspires to commit a crime in another jurisdiction; when a company behaves in ways that show its supposed concern for the environment is trumped by the profit motive; and when a company leader fails accountability in public?

The short answer: yes, it does – it matters a lot. Here’s why. Research shows that reputation influences purchase decision–making and most of all, trust. Lose trust and you’ve probably lost a swag of your customers, too. More than that, you can end up paying a huge opportunity cost.

After the US Environmental Protection Agency decided BP wasn’t doing a good enough clean-up job in the wake of the huge Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it had BP banned from Federal contracts for a while. BP continues to make money around the world – but it could have made so much more.

The reputation challenge can come down not only to perceptions of an organization as a whole, but also specifically to the performance of the CEO. No fewer than five reputation-related reports were released recently and one has interestingly highlighted the need for CEOs to be more visible in discussing societal issues than in talking about financial results. The recent Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour is a typical example of this with the Tall Poppies meeting when 100 entrepreneurs and leaders discussed how to realise the potential of Australia’s female entrepreneurs.

The figures show 72% for financial results and 80% for societal issues such as income inequality, public policy issues and the CEO expressing their own views on societal concerns. That’s confronting for organisational leaders who think that they only have to satisfy their board and the shareholders. In fact, the survey showed that 65% of respondents thought CEOs focused too much on short-term financial results while nearly as many (63%) believed CEOs were not focused enough on job creation.

All the surveys highlight the fact that reputation is a complex construct, and that trust should not only focus on being trustworthy, but also having a positive influence on society and conducting business honestly and ethically.

The events in Australian of recent times affecting reputation show that it’s time not only for executives to take reputation more seriously, but also to ask themselves whether their public relations strategies are helping to build and protect this vital intangible asset. It’s not for nothing that the London-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations calls PR ‘the discipline which looks after reputation’