Context & Conscience

By Rick Murray, Managing Partner

This is the time of year when pundits from all walks of life weigh in with their predictions for the coming year. If 2020 has taught us anything, it should be to treat all such predictions with a grain of salt. Seriously, who had “global pandemic hits millions, forcing mass shutdowns and tanking the economy” on their list this time last year? 

Rather than hypothesizing about trends, this post reflects on what’s gone down this year. It presents what I believe are some of the lasting implications of all we’ve seen and learned in 2020 in our roles as builders and protectors of brands and reputations. One inescapable conclusion: communicating well has never been more important nor more challenging.   

First, everyone’s worldview has changed. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We may have started the year with aspirations of self-actualization, but now most of us are struggling to meet the most basic physiological and safety needs. We’ve gone from thriving to surviving – and what that means is different for everyone. One narrative, and one message, can’t fit all. We have to consider the context with which the message will be received, lest we be branded as tone deaf and out of touch with the current reality – a reality that continues to change daily.      

What was normal is a distant memory. We are now in one of three buckets: essential and front-line workers, remote workers and entrepreneurs. Some businesses are miles ahead of plan; some have pivoted to stay relevant; and others struggle to stay afloat in this second, deadly surge. The promise of the vaccines offers us new hope, but for many the future remains uncertain. And that breeds new levels of fear, doubt, frustration, anger and anxiety.   

We are social beings. The loss of human interaction has taken a real toll on psyches, relationships and outlooks everywhere. Technology has made it possible for many of us stay connected – to work from home, learn from home, shop from home and play from home, but at what price? And what of those whose jobs are simply gone? And those who don’t have the kind of job or access to the technology that enables an everything-from-home lifestyle?  

The good news IMO? If private and public sector leaders don’t drive change, the people will. From BLM to Q Anon, citizen activism is on the rise. People are tired of empty promises; and they are fed up with the status quo. Actions now have consequences in the court of public opinion as individuals increasingly vote with their wallets. Companies ignoring this do so at their peril. The new expectation of them by their employees, customers, partners and the public at large isn’t to succeed at any cost; it’s to do so while doing right by society. Check-writing charity or claiming ownership of a purpose isn’t enough. Companies need a conscience, and the will to live by it.  

For communicators, this is both opportunity and threat. There is nothing more compelling than a corporate narrative, rooted in truth and backed up by action, about a business on a mission to make a meaningful difference in the world by doing what it does best. The downside? Losing stakeholder confidence and trust by having that narrative contradicted by a company’s words or deeds.  

Fortunately, what we do has been on center stage in C-Suites and boardrooms around the world since March. The pandemic has forced companies to prioritize and re-think their approach to communications, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in corporate transparency, empathy and vulnerability as a result.  

I think we’re all eager to leave this year behind us; to return to some sense of normalcy in 2021. My sincere hope is that as we do, we don’t lose sight of what helped us connect with the people key to our success amid all this craziness. Building on this new, emerging humanity in how we communicate – and in all we do – will be key to our recovery in 2021 and beyond. 

I want to thank our clients, our partners and especially my colleagues at SHIFT and around the AVENIR GLOBAL network for their support, commitment and resilience this year. We did some amazing work together, and I’m incredibly grateful to you all. All the best for a happy, healthy and safe holidays.  

Cheers, 

Rick

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