This was the year in which we celebrated 20 years of Aspic, but apparently some other stuff happened too.
It’s difficult to look back at the communication trends of 2017 without considering what’s been happening across the Atlantic with our American cousins. The Trump presidency has caused such tumult, division and confusion in the past year or so that I fear it may have changed the rules of communication forever.
A visiting alien from the planet Ork would be forgiven for watching events unfold in the US and thinking: “Oh right – so now you can ignore the facts and claim whatever truth you like. Cool!”
So here’s our first trend of 2017: increased debate about ethics in communication.
We even have new phrases to play with – ‘fake news’ being Trump’s description for any facts he doesn’t like the sound of; while one of his senior advisers coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe, well, I don’t know – your guess is as good as mine.
It’s difficult to imagine this kind of thing working in our world of IC. In fact, at one low point of the year I suggested to my colleagues that we take a Trumpian approach to a new business opportunity. Rather than taking the time to prepare any pitch materials, we’d just turn up, say: “This is going to be the greatest project you’ve ever seen, believe me” and leave it at that. Strangely, that idea didn’t make it out of committee.
But I suspect, like me, you have seen examples of a CEO trying to share an overly positive message in a Town Hall-style meeting, while employees start murmuring because what they’re hearing doesn’t chime with their day-to-day experiences.
‘Ethics in communication’ was a cornerstone of the IABC World Conference this year – although it was slightly alarming to realise in the middle of a fascinating World Café session that I had the worst stories in my group about being asked to communicate what would legitimately be called ‘fake news’ (for the record: yes, over the years I’ve been asked to make up quotes, product reviews and even stories, but I’ve never actually done any of those things).
There’s one other trend that I think links back to Trump, and that’s around going where your people are.
In other words – rather than trying to drag people to a new or underperforming channel, find out where they are, and communicate with them there. Trump has used Twitter to reach his supporters directly (the LA Times described him as having access to a “platform of unfettered communication”) and that approach has been very successful for him.
There are similar examples from IC too: consider the vibrant Nationwide Employees Twitter page, or the fascinating AT&T podcasts available on iTunes. We’ve also heard that one organisation informally uses Facebook to push out messages because some particularly social employees are ‘friends’ with thousands of colleagues.
We expect to see growth in the use of chatbots in the next few years, and that’s linked to this trend too: there are more users of the top chat apps than the top social media apps, so it makes sense to use these platforms to communicate with your people. You can read more about that in our forthcoming 2018 Trends book.
One trend that’s surprised us this year is the return of corporate speak. Maybe it was a delayed reaction to David Brent hitting our screens again in the 2016 Life On The Road film, but it’s certainly been noticeable. And not just in meeting rooms, either, but all around us. Yesterday I had my train ticket checked by a ‘revenue protection operative’ (that’s ‘ticket collector’ in old money); while last week my neighbour’s son was enjoying a ‘logical consequence period’ (go on, have a guess… this is the new term for a ‘detention’).
Leadership and storytelling expert Gabrielle Dolan has been doing some great work in the ongoing fight for Plain English, launching a ‘Jargon Free Fridays’ programme to spread the word. Plus she’s explained what a ‘watermelon project’ is – if you haven’t heard this one before, it means the project is green on the outside, but red on the inside.
We thought this type of language had fallen out of fashion years ago, but many of our clients tell us they’re fighting ongoing battles to eradicate it. And that it’s having an impact, because it kills inspiration and engagement. So let me ‘empower you’ (in other words, get you to do something for me) by encouraging you to take a stand against this nonsense in 2018.
Something less surprising, but no less disappointing, is the continued lack of love for measurement. Back in the spring issue of AQ we said: “For many years, IC has been underappreciated and some will say it’s about time we stood up for ourselves and shouted about how great we are.” But how many of us are doing this?
At our 20 years of Aspic event at The Shard I ran a table discussion on the topic, and the feedback reinforced what I’ve seen in many surveys in the past few years: that communicators believe measurement is important, but don’t do nearly enough of it.
As US statistician W. Edwards Deming has said: “In God we trust: all others must bring data.” As an industry we need to provide the evidence that we’re making a difference. At the Aspic session, people told me they were worried about having the right time and tools for effective measurement, but I think that’s an excuse: there are so many options available to communicators these days, particularly with the digital tools at our fingertips.
And new avenues are opening up all the time. Earlier this year we spoke to neuroscience advocate Deborah Hulme who told us: “Throughout my career, I’ve found it frustrating that we’ve had very little concrete evidence – other than our observations of behaviour and gut instinct – to offer stakeholders when trying to argue our case. Neuroscience and its findings have given me that evidence and, through it, a language for talking to stakeholders about the importance of effective communication across organisations.”
As we start to think about our plans for a new year, I’d love to think that 2018 is the time that our industry makes great strides in the breadth of regular measurement that we carry out. Then we’ll really be able to prove our worth – and no-one will be able to write off what we do as ‘fake news’.
Paul Jones, Associate Director – Strategy, Sequel Group