Navigating Change: Communications in an age of decelerating returns
Instinctif Partners’ CEO, Ed Amory, will be publishing monthly thought pieces on the theme of Navigating Change. In his first article in the series he raises the question of how communications must change in an uncertain era.
The 21st century so far seems like back to the future, as we face disease, war and now strikes across the UK. How can the communications industry respond to these apparently retrospective challenges?
In his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil proposed The Law of Accelerating Returns, which argued that technological change was increasing at such a rate that ‘we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress’. However scary that scenario might prove, the early years of the 21st century have instead illustrated that forward progress is not a given, that change can be circular; we have had a pandemic, a European war, and now in Britain the prospect of a return to a summer of industrial unrest.
The strikes now facing the UK – this week our rail network has been paralysed by unions asking for higher pay in the face of the rising cost of living – are particularly nostalgic for those like me who were alive in the 1970s. We were brought up at least partly in the dark, as striking coal miners cut supplies to power stations, and we learnt to keep candles close by on winters’ evenings.
What is also less than modern about the strikes is the way in which the various negotiators on both sides, and the politicians who sit behind them, approach the problem from a communications perspective. Conservative leaders have seized on them as a wedge issue to make Labour’s Keir Starmer appear more extremist. So instead of trying to negotiate, they have been leaking stories to the papers about the supposedly lazy and overpaid union leaders and workers. Labour, just as in the Seventies, appears paralysed, with some of its leaders supporting the strikers, while others attempt to distance themselves. Overall, it feels like the very opposite of progress, with Kurzweil’s Singularity a very long way off indeed.
The strikes, as with the pandemic and the European war, are essentially a struggle involving logistics and communications. In Ukraine, President Zelensky won the communications battle convincingly, but now faces a logistical challenge. In the pandemic, countries like China and New Zealand achieved an extraordinary feat of logistics to contain covid, but lost the communications challenge as their populations were not vaccinated. Now, as the industrial unrest in Britain looks likely to spread to NHS workers, teachers and BT employees, politicians and business leaders face the same twin organisational and communications challenges. If consumers and voters blame bosses for the strikes, then they lose, and if they blame the strikers, then those leaders will be the long term winners.
So what communications guidance can we offer to those facing such choices? I believe that there are three changes since the Seventies of which they should be aware. The first, as employers who have tried and failed to persuade their teams to return to the office five days a week post pandemic have discovered, is that there has been a shift in attitude towards work. Today, especially in the tight UK labour market, workers are all too ready to withdraw their labour from employers who don’t pay them properly or share their values. And the public are likely to support them. For now, the workers are the winners.
Second, audiences have moved and trust has shifted. Almost exactly half of UK adults get their news from social media, a huge and profound shift. And while it is the case that social media uses content from traditional media organisations, the ability of newspaper editors and proprietors to shape the agenda has significantly diminished. Communications battles, as President Zelensky has demonstrated, are now fought and won online, using tight messaging and multimedia content. Readers no longer trust editors and columnists in the way that they once did; the age of deference is dead. Brands and leaders must communicate authentically, crafting their messages to appeal directly to audiences on the social platforms where they spend their time.
Third, there are increasing signs that the public in the UK at least dislikes polarisation. Two new TV channels, GB News and Talk TV, which could easily have attempted to recreate the shouting matches that characterise Fox News in America, have found that they must be more nuanced to survive. Times Radio, the civilised talking shop that is the audio arm of Times Newspapers, has been a surprise success, with a weekly audience of 700,000 plus. Anger, hatred and disdain play extremely badly with the public.
So while we may not yet have a Singularity, and we still do have strikes, dictators, war, famine and disease, we also have a profoundly different communications environment, and navigating these challenges requires new thinking and fresh and more enlightened values. Which is, somehow, encouraging.