Out of control2004-08-05
Traditional organizational communication is all about control. The organization has a message, a brand, an image. The communicator’s job is to ensure these assets are projected correctly into the marketplace in support of overarching business goals.
Here’s an example. Back when I was director of corporate communications for an ophthalmic pharmaceutical company, I got a phone call one day from a reporter with one of the TV stations in Waco, Texas, where the company operated a manufacturing facility. “The sherrif has arrested a local man for selling contact lenses to school kids on street corners,” he told me. “We want to know if they’re your lenses and, if so, if you have any comment.”
Bizarre as that sounds, prom night was coming up and girls wanted tinted lenses to match their gowns. I had no way of knowing if the lenses were ours, but I promised to find out. In the meantime, I told him, he’d be doing the community a service if he broadcast a warning to parents that contact lenses can cause permanent eye damage if they weren’t prescribed by a doctor. Ultimately, the lenses turned out to be a competitor’s, hijacked off a truck. Whether they were ours or not, though, we were able to protect the company’s image by influencing the reporter to convey a message based on the company’s concern for its customers and the public at large. We controlled the situation.
What if the story of the contact lens pusher had first appeared on a blog? And what if the tale were picked up by other blogs? Soon, “contact lens” would have been a top search term, all pointing to the blogs covering the story. Where is your leverage then?
It’s this fear of loss of control, I believe, that has led most communicators to maintain a comfortable distance from blogs, wikis and the whole notion of participatory communication.
To wield influence in the world of participatory communication, organizations will need to participate in the dialogue. That runs counter to everything communicators ever learned. Presidents and CEOs are terrified of audiences, which is why you hardly ever see any of them taking part in discussions on the Yahoo finance boards bearing their companies’ names. One of the main reasons executives spend money on communications is to have somebody shield them from audiences and manage the messaging between companies and constituencies.
Of course, blogs and wikis are wielding increasing influence of their own. Audiences wary of a press that seems to have been co-opted by political interests, business interests and the Patriot Act have begun turning to these alternatives in hopes of getting unadulterated information.
Needless to say, these same audiences have no assurance (and most are under no illusion) that bloggers adhere to the same kind of standards that professional journalists do. In journalism school I was taught the fundamentals of credibility, such as the need to verify any information with two independent sources. You have to wonder how many bloggers bother to check with even a single source.
But bloggers fill the void that’s created when the content produced by mainstream media becomes suspect. As more and more of the public turn to blogs, communicators need to accept that participatory communication is just part of the landscape—a dominant part, at at that—and learn to deal with it. If they can’t control they message, they’d damn well better figure out how to influence the conversation. To do that, they need to counsel their companies and clients that participation in the dialogue has become a requirement.