December 23, 2016

#LookBack2016: The Year Pollsters and Pundits Got It Wrong

Across the world, and in India, events took place this year that no one saw coming. In the case of global events, like Brexit and the Donald Trump win, the unexpectedness was in how the chips would fall. In the case of India, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on November 8 at 8 pm, suddenly announced that the currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 denominations would no longer be accepted as legal tenders from midnight, the entire country—citizens, businesses, public services—were disrupted. And not one ‘economist’ had predicted that something like this could happen.

On the corporate front, if, at the beginning of the year, someone told you that this year one of the most respected corporate institutions in India (and the world, I dare say) would grapple with adrastic leadership change, you wouldn’t have believed them. Another instance where things took an unexpected turn was when a campaign with the seemingly laudable aim to make the internet more accessible to the under-served faced instead a vehement ‘Save the Internet’ campaign.

What does this mean to us as communicators? There are some clear takeaways.

Ear to the ground

Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”Communicators typically spend a lot of time developing the messaging that will go out, but we don’t put in the same investment and rigour towards building an orchestrated effort into bringing information in. We don’t listen enough. Yes, from time to time, HR may do an employee survey or public relations may do a media perception study, but do we really have an understanding of the overall sentiment around the organisation? When we do, we can formulate messaging that effectively addresses the sentiment. As the custodian of the image of the company, a communicator’s preoccupation should be to have a regular pulse on the perception of the company among the various stakeholders. And not just in the old-fashioned way. We have technology to support us in this. The concept of inhouse newsrooms—both in agencies as well as corporate organisations—has brought real-time monitoring as well as analysis to everyone’s fingertips. All we need then is to figure out how everything adds up and what is the implication for the company.

Who are your ‘foe-weather’ friends?

When things are going your way, everyone wants to associate with you. But one of the most critical things you need when the tide is against you is people who can stand by you—whether that is clients, employees, the government or any other stakeholders. Cultivating a network of such ‘foe-weather’ friends should be a top priority during peace time. Because when the trust on you is low, you need champions to advocate your cause.

More of the same doesn’t work

The idea behind demonetisation was to target black money (illegally accumulated wealth). Even though the jury is still out on whether it will have the desired effect, the point to note is that the move was risky. It’s important to be bold and take risks. How many of us are doing that—for ourselves, our organizations or our clients? The fact is, as communicators, our job today is much more complex than ever before. A recently released study by Arthur W Page Society, titled The New CCO: Transforming Enterprises In A Changing World, says that the Chief Communication Officer today has to deal with competitors coming in with disruptive business models, multiple avenues of stakeholder engagement, empowered stakeholders and demographic, regulatory and socio-political conditions. As people who support and counsel the CCO, we have to be much more alert, armed with bold and impactful ideas, and have the capability and tools to execute any plan, no matter how big or small.

Connecting the dots

When you have the intelligence and a sense of the ground sentiment, you have the potential allies in place, and the organisation has a will to take risk and do things disruptively, the communicator then has to bring it all together to build a coherent and impactful advocacy campaign for the company or the brand. If there is one role we must step up to the plate and play, it is to be that dot connector.

The year 2017 will bring with it a whole new set of challenges. Some we know—the continued ups and downs of demonetisation, the impact of GST, the beginnings of the implications, if any, of Trump presidency on Indian industry and people. But a lot of challenges, like in any year, won’t be expected. So the biggest takeaway from the big unexpected events of this year is this—stay alert, stay prepared, stay agile.

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