“When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.” – William Hazlitt
Have you been to an industry conference recently where the panellists had a good old ding dong, where one executive took a fundamentally different position from another and a passionate debate, the type that changes an industry’s direction, or company strategy, followed? No, me neither.
We used to be able to depend on politicians from either end of the political spectrum to air their differences of opinion in public. Voters would, occasionally, change political allegiance as a result. But with the Tories moving west and Labour moving east, that’s a dying art too.
Have communicators become a bit too frightened of debate? I’m not talking here about the cheap shot approach of briefing a reporter without leaving fingerprints that a particular competitor doesn’t treat its customers well, or that a competitive product is inferior to your award-winning offering.
I mean meaningful, intelligent, perception-changing public debate, involving customers and investors and others with a valuable (and sometimes an unwelcome) view. Is everyone too much in polite agreement these days? Have we grown afraid of controversy, more risk managers than reputation managers?
More often than not, it’s left to journalists to stir up controversy but that typically provides a story masquerading as controversy. Yet genuine debate is often the most direct route to genuine insight and altered perceptions. New technology is probably the most fertile ground for discussion and debate, but if fireworks do happen, it’s usually behind closed committee room doors.
On the rare occasion when an executive says something interesting, the company’s press officer is usually quick to jump in to put out the fire, rather than help build the debate.
Social media provides a great debating platform. The UK faces many challenges today. Two such issues are economic performance and how to create an Olympic legacy. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the coalition Government put their petty squabbles about House of Lords reform and Boundary Changes away somewhere safe and used social media to engage in a big conversation on the really big issues that affect the electorate, rather than what interests the political parties?
Someone would no doubt point out that such an act signalled a lack of political ideas but would better answers to both questions not be worth the abuse? In any event, it could be positioned as democracy in action, a recognition that the best answers might reside outside the Palace of Westminster among the governed.
A key objective of a company’s communications department should be to help to differentiate the business and brand, to foster better understanding and insight among stakeholders and reflect the world’s view back within the organisation, not simply to outgun the competition in terms of press coverage or re-tweet volumes, while in political circles, communications success is measured on points scored for and against.
Taking too risk-averse an approach to external communications will surely lead to missed corporate opportunities and a failure to create subjects of genuine interest.