Communications’ Great(er) Expectations

We could have seen some of it coming.

October 2021

Communications’ Great(er) Expectations

We could have seen some of it coming.

Companies pulled back their marketing budgets in the early days of pandemic uncertainty and in-person event cancellation. Then the build-up that had to be spent by the end of Q4 2020 hit like a Tsunami. We all hustled to make it work.

Most marketing departments and agencies got the job done from home, sometimes more productively, proving it could be done. So employees wanted – some nearly demanded – permanent work-from-home options. Those options are mostly in place.

After calls for social justice roiled and inspired the country, employees and RFPs made it clear that DEI programs and policies were on their mind, and progress was expected. Like, yesterday. Companies appear to be making real progress.

Looking back, some of these outcomes could have been anticipated and a few were even welcomed. But our new normal has also raised the bar in more subtle ways for communicators. Enter the heighted expectations placed on marketing departments, agencies and in some cases the whole of humanity. From taking relevance to new extremes, to producing content on a grander scale, to working seamlessly across cultures and borders, these refinements are here to stay, and they make us all better.

Relevance

Our phones serving us news and ads based on our online activity has sharpened the pencil-point of our relevance expectations. But even before that, relevant category expertise was a differentiator for companies seeking employees or agencies. What’s different is the level of specificity that’s now expected, and it’s expected because it’s increasingly available. When a longtime specialty chemicals client of ours needed a partner in China, two options within our network had relevant automotive experience. But one even had the specific automotive paint protection film experience the client desired.

With the world shrinking through cultivated networks and connections as close as your LinkedIn profile, deep, relevant experience is available and expected.

And relevance goes beyond expertise – a colleague was presenting to a PR group at his alma mater. He gave students 100 points to allocate between attributes of the jobs they will soon be evaluating. This was a generation, we thought, driven by purpose, flexibility, equality. But the group collectively assigned nearly 90 of their points to salary. A stark reminder: assumptions have no place driving action (in this case recruiting).

Relevance comes down to two things: 1. Keep your finger on the pulse, cultivating your network so you know where to turn for the niche expertise you might be needed to round out your own. 2. The old PR stalwart: research. Assumptions are fraught when it comes to pinning down what a particular audience wants. Finding answers can be as easy as asking the right questions.

Content at Scale

Often, specific expertise is sought in the interest of creating meaningful content without a learning curve. Especially with limited in-person options, valuable, high-quality content has become pivotal. This year, amid dozens of advertising copywriters and PR writers, Fahlgren Mortine hired its first Content Specialist. We hired our first two, in fact, and a video production manager who can go from camera to finished product.

Whether it’s the skyrocketing need for video, the unique skill of writing and curating engaging social content, drafting how-to website copy, technical white papers, or thought-leadership bylines, companies are establishing their own content studios or boosting their relationship with agencies. And those who haven’t yet, will soon. The ability to quickly produce meaningful content is an expectation that will only heighten as control continues to shift toward searchers of content and away from creators.

Cultural Fluency

As diversity training offerings proliferated in response to the BLM movement, we all became more mindful of differences in backgrounds and experiences, recognizing our own explicit and implicit bias. The work being done on an interpersonal level has almost immediately evolved to the campaign level.

Salter Mitchell PR in Florida has built a team of practitioners that reflects the state’s diverse, multicultural and multigenerational population. RFPs from the public sector often specifically request marketing and PR targeting the state’s minority and non-English speaking residents, in addition to the large senior population and general public. Most RFPs that don’t request cultural fluency come from private sector organizations. Salter Mitchell, knowing Florida, always responds with an approach that ensures the campaign is diverse and inclusive. Heidi Ottaway, Salter Mitchell president, says most organizations are receptive, and since 2020, they are having more conversations with clients about this.

In my circle, people have begun to think more deeply about interactions across all divides, the most apparent of which, operating in a global network, is culture.

Malcom Gladwell famously wrote in Outliers that a flight crew’s national culture could materially affect safety. Hierarchical, highly deferential cultures can lead to co-pilots and crew members hesitating to question judgments or point out mistakes of superiors, such as the pilot or air traffic controllers. He gave several examples based on conversations captured by black box flight recorders.
Adjusting to cultural differences is less critical when communicating via Zoom rather than in a cockpit, but the differences are no less real. It’s not just about showing respect for colleagues of all cultures – it’s about working effectively together. The book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, organized by country, is my go-to before I travel or engage with partners in different countries to help me understand where our cultural differences may become challenges. For instance, most of us in the U.S. have been coached to deliver feedback in the “sandwich” format – positive, negative, positive – to increase receptiveness. For our German counterparts, the book advises, that’s mixed-messaging/confusing/nonsense and will be disregarded. The lesson, if your audience in German: get to the point as directly and simply as possible and don’t cushion.

The Global Fluency Institute offers a quiz that illuminates just some of these nuances. One thing is clear: what we don’t know about how our cultural differences may impact us as operational teams literally fills books. For those who don’t have the privilege of attending Global Fluency Training, simply being aware of the dimensions of culture can be helpful. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity/Femininity, Long-Term Orientation, and Indulgence (vs. Restraint).

Global Reach

A virus from China became a major disruptor in the lives of people the world over within months. It’s a microcosm of globalization, and the interconnection that’s been growing and flourishing for years.

Our agency went from offering no global capabilities a decade ago – and seeing no need – to joining and becoming deeply involved with IPREX, the global communication network, and winning more than $3 million in business we wouldn’t have been able to pitch without the global capabilities IPREX brings.

My friend Anu Gupta in Singapore has experienced the same phenomenon, but regionally. She and the team saw the need to expand Asia PR Werkz’s footprint into Indonesia (culturally diverse but with strong trade and business ties to Singapore). So they did. The team also regularly works on behalf of clients with partners among Southeast Asia’s other largest, internet-savvy economies – Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. The expectation of operating across countries has led to agency growth and brag-worthy client outcomes.

Whether it’s a crisis that needs boots on the ground in Italy, a CEO interested in meeting with media while in Beijing, vetting an ad campaign in multiple European countries, or executing an ongoing media relations program, our agency partners in the IPREX network have always come through. It is absolutely possible to imagine cultivating a global network organically and independently; but for us, joining an established network that vets partners was the simpler choice. Working with your agency and their global network also can be a cost-effective and scalable boutique-type experience, delivering precisely the expertise and reach needed.

Expectations, by Culture

I told my friend Ann-Marie in Cork, Ireland, that something was fabulous, something I must say 10 times a day. She said, “typical American overstatement.” For Americans, she said, “good” things are almost always, “Awesome!”

There were growing pains, for sure. But if the last 19 months have brought us closer together, across cultures and geographies, and reminded us of the power of cultivating our networks – online if not in person – then I say, without a hint of overstatement: that’s awesome.