Talking films soon ousted the silent movies. But despite our ability to add sound to every medium from websites to mobile phones, the PR industry has yet to give its clients’ publics anything worth listening to. Reginald Watts explains why a sound strategy for a public relations campaign will soon mean exactly that!
The movable feast we call corporate communications has always been, well, movable. With shame I admit to writing some years ago that corporate communications did not exist. It was just a fashionable name for the combination of consumer, governmental, employee and community relations.
Mama Mia, what a faux pas, to mix my languages.
Today, I earn a living advising companies in this “fashionable” discipline, arguing it is the central plank of organisational communication. Times change and never more so than in the years ahead.
Writing at the time of the millennium a business pundit prophesised this decade would be about three E’s: education, environment and ethics. Companies would have to react to customers who were better “Educated”, have a growing interest in the “Environment” and above all, be forced to operate within rigorous “Ethical” standards.
For once a forecast about public relations was spot on. Bernard Carey, director and colleague in consultants Sound Strategies and one time director of corporate communications at the Smiths Group, at Rover and Lucas, summed up the situation in corporate communications by saying: “Corporate identity has come to represent more than a design system. It now embodies a company’s wider values and positioning within its stakeholder diaspora.
“It includes all forms of visual interface between a company and its publics. Some companies have multiple brands for subsidiaries, product groups or single products with their own identity and logo.
“This whole is bound together within one underlying strategy that extends visual corporate identity to a single design style for literature, exhibition showrooms, reception areas encompassing colour, material choice, photographic style, type faces and tone of voice.”
He went on to talk about the coming use of sound and musical signatures as reinforcement to the visual signifiers, but more of that later. Bernard Guly, MD of View, the brand and digital communications agency, argues that Bernard Carey’s list of message carriers will play a growing part in the three E’s formula, acting as facilitators. “Companies now have the ability to incorporate their CSR initiative into the way they use the web to grasp the reputational high ground and push the positive aspects of their work to the front” (see www.gsk.com for examples of his approach).
Unfortunately, despite the lip service we hear from heads of corporate affairs, few companies achieve a high enough level of co-ordinated attack. There is a lamentable lack of understanding by managers of how meaning is processed and taken from corporate material, especially when it is purely visual and unwritten (see my article in Behind the Spin in May 2005).
Everyone talks the talk. Kate Nicholas wrote in PR Week (3 March 2006) that she counted 30 mentions of podcasts at a conference she attended yet “there appeared to be a disconnection developing between the new media and the business of day-to-day PR”.
So much talk about delivery systems goes on yet many heads of communication still fail to get their message right. Without a full scale positioning audit you might as well whistle in the wind. I have lost count of the positioning audits where my question to the CEO on the company positioning receives the reply that they are a “company offering high quality products, with excellent after sales service and value for money products”.
I bite my lip at this point and refrain from replying “and I suppose you are kind to animals too”.
Motherhood and honesty does not build reputation, nor gain listeners. If the message strategy is to work, it should be based on a clear positioning statement of a few paragraphs only, no War and Peace, please. The statement need include only a small number of descriptors for the company. They must not be statements of the obvious but ones which if taken together could not, in truth, be used about any competitor. Until that statement is accepted, and do not believe an away weekend in a country house is enough to get it right, the presence of the CEO alone will ensure the list of platitudes exceeds the pages on the flip chart.
Discussion about new media techniques is for the birds. Forget it. As cross-border communications expert Ronna Porter (left) argues: “In a blurred world, the winners will be those who can best bring to life a clear, differentiated and desirable vision that stakeholders share. It will be emotional as well as rational, accessing all five senses.
“It will be a conversation involving more than 80 percent listening and less than 20 percent talking. By knowing who they are, what they are trying to achieve, with whom, they gain their bottom-line advantage. Get it right, then implement, implement, implement.”
Blogging and podcasting certainly provides carriers but if the message content is to produce a reaction, heavier doses of targeted market research are needed. Researching one cohort within the target area is not enough. Continually updated data is needed to track the sensitivity to those issues which provide traction for the attitudes held by publics the manager hopes to reach. Target groups always operate within a wider discourse than the carefully identified groups so proudly offered on PowerPoint presentations.
The concept of the discourse applies to values, attitudes, emotions, and interactions based on class, employment, education and history within a given cohort. The corporate programme needs to carry cues and signs which have been previously identified within the discourse. This is considerably more sophisticated than the old style public relations programmes with their lists of generalised socio-economic groups.
David Phillips FCIPR, runs NetReputation which tracks ideas, changing attitudes and fashionable trends discussed in the media everywhere in the world. The data comes in at daybreak each morning, in English, and provides the building bricks for tracing attitudes as they move within those groups the communications manager hopes to influence.
One of Bernard Carey’s co-directors at Sound Strategies is musicologist Michael Spencer who was once a member of the London Symphony Orchestra. Today, as a member of the Sound Strategies team, he drives the sonic interpretation of positioning audit data to create the musical equivalent of a corporate design system. He said: “Until recently, very little attention was paid to the sounds and music a company could use to reinforce its visual identity. The sonic interfaces have for most companies been limited. That situation has changed with the advent of personal computers, cell phones and the robotic devices used in mobile telephony.”
Remember we are talking corporate here, not the jingles and noises-off of television branding. Michael Spencer cites recent research showing how music and sound can impact the human brain (hence the title of one of his presentations: “Singing in the Brain”). He aims in his work to create a lasting and more emotional response than visual design system alone.
Silent films, he suggests, were quickly superseded by the talkies. So too must corporate managers develop sonic programmes that will extend visual signifiers to include signature sounds delivered across a choice of more than a hundred delivery systems.
Such systems range from reception area mood creators and hang-on telephone sounds to backgrounders for company AGMs, page-turners on web sites and new wave Bluecasting in airports, exhibitions and seminars. The future for corporate communicators must embody the importance of positioning audits based upon a more rigorous methodology than ever before. Those old style interviews with the results recorded on the back of envelopes simply will not cut the ice.
An analysis of the discourse within which target groups exist always helps the plants grow. The new approach to company identity is to widen the playing field. The talkies must come to town and add something to the visuals that once emerged only from the designer’s domain. A sonic strategy is psychological stuff, not the composition of a merry tune to help sell detergents. The way forward for corporate practice is a greater academic understanding of how people take meaning from the new channels. This is where future change will occur. “
Too little attention is paid to the difficult and prolix disiplines of neuroscience” (Watts 2006 The Journal of Communications Management, volume10 no.1). The psychology of perception will become our handmaiden with its primary concern for sensory process and mental decision making. We have to mobilise elements from the great body of academic work, which already exists, and translate it into methodologies suitable for corporate use. We are moving into a new world of rapid interaction.
Within ten years a company’s sonic signature delivered through the new media will be as important as a logo and design system. Customers will access their mediarich websites, hear ringtones, listen to recorded message services; walk into shops/showrooms and hear recognisable tones and shopping mood variations on the sonic signature, hear employee messages as they visit intranets, see internal CEO message conferences, bulletins, training courses and even ethics tutorials on their mobiles. Company publics will listen on desktops, laptops, Blackberries, cell phones, iPods and Walkmans through Bluetooth, broadband and 3G (plus presumably 4G by then).
But none of this will work unless companies first understand the complex psychology of meaning transfer and emotional awareness of the written, visual and sonic opportunities that drive an identity within one architecture.
There is an underlying change in corporate communications which is forcing practitioners to realign their attitude to theory. Whether many of the old timers will like it or not the decade ahead will become increasingly about psychology, semiotics and perception theory. If public relations can enter this new area of effectiveness it will generate a true modernisation of corporate business.