Entering the new age of sustainable communication

A paradigm shift is underway in communications management. Driven by digitalization, globalization and sustainability, we are moving away from the attempt to influence large target audiences and towards dialogue focused on specific stakeholders and their interests.

Just when the challenges of the postmodern economy have turned peoples’ attention to the field of communications management – a level of attention it has long sought – both the science and day-to-day business of communications management are experiencing a period of fundamental change. American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn popularized a term (admittedly overused today) in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which aptly describes this type of transformation: paradigm shift.

Old paradigms in the field of communication are fragile

Digitalization, globalization and sustainability are the three trends most responsible for the fact that – to put it in Kuhn’s terms – new phenomena are constantly being introduced to the science and everyday practice of communications today. These new phenomena can in no way be reconciled with the established communications paradigm dating back to Edward Bernays and Arthur Page, which envisions communication flowing from the company to the target audience via controlled media channels aimed at persuading an audience. One needs only consider the example of today’s geographic and temporal hyper-transparency, which puts every company in the age of social media under permanent pressure to defend itself.

Top management one step ahead

It is remarkable how clearly the above-described shift is reflected in communications managers’ own assessments of their role. As early as fall 2013, Germany’s Academic Society for Corporate Management & Communication published the results of an empirical comparative study in which 602 board members and executives along with 1,251 communications managers at German companies answered questions about the role and responsibilities of communications management. Anyone who had imagined top management wanting to exert full control over communications and working hard to rein in communications managers otherwise striving towards maximum transparency … was in for a surprise. 69% of executives professed their commitment to transparency and openness with regard to relevant target groups; among communications managers the figure was only 41%. Reassuringly, only 30% of top managers recommend the “smokescreen” approach, i.e. publishing as much information as possible without regard for structure, as an effective communications strategy. Nearly half of communications managers (49%), on the other hand, still consider this an appropriate strategy.

It seems as if general management has already arrived in the age of sustainable communications with success-critical stakeholders, while some communications experts still dream the dream of being able to influence public opinion. They face a rude awakening.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” He’d likely be repeating it again today.

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