Feedback is a vital aspect of communication. Feedback enables us to understand our environment and to build alignment with stakeholders. Failing to create a feedback-friendly environment makes an organization vulnerable.
To say that the communication profession has failed to live up to its calling as a protagonist of feedback is an understatement. Instead, it has mostly contented itself with building Chinese walls between organizations and their stakeholders. From the safety of these walls, communication professionals aim to reach their ‘target groups’, using every conceivable trick from the PR and advertising handbooks, from priming to framing and from persuasion to seduction. While these shortcuts into the subconscious, intuitive brain may indeed bring short-term gains, erosion of trust is the inevitable price to be paid in the long term.
The skill that the communication profession has thus sadly failed to master is that of listening. Now the environment is striking back. Could it be that the life expectancy of organizations has fallen so dramatically because signals of a changing, more unstable environment have been ignored for too long? Is it a coincidence that public trust in institutions, especially business and government, has reached record lows? Do the engagement crisis and the low levels of trust within organizations have a common root cause? While it might seem far-fetched to simply understand such diverse issues as proof of failing communication, clearly a strategy of ‘splendid isolation’ does not make things any better.
As humans we have a natural tendency to ignore what others have to say, especially if it seems to contradict our own beliefs and convictions. A perfectly “normal” expression such as “We have communicated the message” underlines how deeply ingrained — almost hardwired — our misconception of communication is.
The world is becoming an increasingly unforgiving environment for those who fail to listen. Blinded by their ‘messaging myopia’, too many organizations fail to see that while neatly designed messages, campaigns and symbolism can indeed feed a conversation, they are not the conversation itself. What more significant contribution could communication advisers make than to truly embrace the two-directional nature of communication and to persuade leaders to do the same? It will make organizations more sustainable and the world a better place.
If the point of corporate communication is to build mutually rewarding relationships with stakeholders, then the profession still has a long way to go. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw allegedly said “The problem with communication is the illusion it has been accomplished.” It’s certainly a piece of wisdom I remind myself of every day.