Returning to work, and to India, after the Christmas break, I felt as if I was starting in a brand new job! Spending some time in Europe enabled me to take stock of the fundamental shifts that have occurred during the last year. Here is a take on what they are and how they are likely to impact the communications sector in India.
Globally, last year signalled the trend of direct communication between communicators and their audiences; the media played an accompanying – as opposed to a definitive – role in the biggest events of the year, Brexit and the US presidential elections. Regarding the latter, while the liberal media remained vehemently anti-Trump from beginning to the end of the campaign, the conservative media (WSJ, The Standard, and Politico, for instance) did little to offset this sentiment. In fact, according to some research, the traditional Republican media actually distanced itself from Trump as the polling day approached1.
In a trend which Trump is maintaining in his role as President-elect, Twitter continues to be his principle medium of communication, direct to his stakeholders. Such social media channels have become ‘primary’ news channels in their own right, and are routinely referenced in traditional media as sources.
However, I believe that the pendulum will swing back in the US and Europe — from ‘hard disintermediation’, where journalists are questioning their very role and relevance, back towards a more emerging market model where reputable media plays a role as ‘first validator’ of news.
This feeling is influenced by the emergence of another phenomenon last year – so-called ‘Fake News’. Not merely ‘opinion’ presented as irrefutable fact, but the propagation of completely fabricated news stories and events. The practice of disseminating fake news is not limited to politics. I noted a string of tweets accompanying the Merseyside football derby (Liverpool v Everton) last month claiming to report an incident involving fans of Liverpool FC supporters overturning a car with a family inside, outside the ground after the match. The ‘news’ – which was propagated by an official-looking local newspaper account – turned out to be fiction. All trace of the ‘story’ has now been removed from the Web…. I am a fan of neither team, but I can imagine the consternation that such misinformation causes; in fact, one of the Liverpool fan sites has a very good article on this issue2.
I think that the Fake News trend will make the journalist’s role – whether traditional or digital – even more crucial. Media houses, newspapers, broadcasters, and reputable journalists are ultimately accountable; they are subject to laws and compliance, they adhere to a (self-defined) editorial code, they are answerable for their actions; ultimately, to their advertisers. I think we’ve seen the limits of complete disintermediation.
Another issue, of particular relevance to international communicators, is a form of ‘corporate nationalism’ where business and commercial decisions are presented in political terms. It started with tax/jurisdiction disputes involving companies such as Apple and Google, which became political duels between the US and the European Union. Over the last month alone Donald Trump has publically chided the likes of Boeing (regarding the cost of refurbishing the Presidential jet), Ford (on plans to locate factories in Mexico, subsequently retracted), and Toyota (on the company’s practice of manufacturing cars for the American market outside the US). And this is even before the new US President has been sworn in! Nationalist movements in Europe (from the UK and France, to the Netherlands and Austria) are certain to exploit the issue of business as a political commodity. Communicators who work in an international context should be aware and sensitive to such issues in the coming year.
Finally, Millennials are passé, long live Generation Z! Will 2017 be the year that brands focus on the next generation of consumers and employees? If so, they’ll find a demographic far more selective about what they share, who they are interactive with and what they reveal. Unlike their predecessors for whom ‘to share is to exist’, I think we’ll see the first open resistance to the algorithm. Huge data breaches, privacy concerns and better performing ad blockers/filters, together with a higher level of credulity and skepticism from younger consumers will combine to blunt the impact of automated ‘broadcast’-type communications. Brands will no longer be able to drive conversations, they’ll have to try and be part of other people’s. And that will require them to, first of all, listen….
2017 looks likely to be a tough year for brands simply looking to ‘buy’ sentiment!