The New Normal
As we saw in my previous blog of this Series, the Digital Revolution has altered the social dynamic, enabling individuals to connect and form strong networks. This double helix of the “online world” and “offline world” feed the new social context— The New Normal. In this abstract, we will examine the three interrelated dimensions that characterise this recent societal shift: Hyper-Transparency, Interconnectivity and Media Anarchy.
The New Normal has enabled us to strengthen our sense of identity and individuality and as a result, we engage with higher expectations. In this environment, we no longer talk about what is desirable but instead use the language of rights, where every view and opinion is considered to hold the same weight, regardless of the credibility of the source. A disregard for such opinion can quickly trigger claims of exclusion, reinforced by the “echo chamber” created by engaging only with people sharing our views.
Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of information today, there’s a level of transparency that is no longer optional; companies can embrace the opportunity to be more direct and transparent, or they can resist change, creating disengagement from key stakeholders. While it is expected that businesses will always maintain a certain degree of privacy, engaging more openly with stakeholders should not be seen as a threat but rather as an opportunity.
Given that today’s media platforms act as amplifiers of good behaviour, communication and performance—as well as bad—as BP’s former CEO Lord Browne says, “Businesses can turn online transparency to their advantage if they have nothing to hide, if they are willing to have a genuine dialogue and if they have used the proliferation of data without overstepping privacy boundaries.”
Driven by the increase in transparency, most companies have changed the way they engage with their stakeholders. Rio Tinto, a global mining company, had to adapt its stakeholder relations strategies in the communities in which the company operates. Simone Niven, Group Executive of Corporate Relations at Rio Tinto shared with me that "society now has much higher expectations, especially of big business, big government and institutions than in the past. We have taken a long hard look at how we operate. The principles of greater openness and transparency are really changing the way we do our business.”
Operating in a world of Hyper-transparency is challenging and businesses must adapt to this new reality. When I spoke with Richard Woods, Senior Vice President Corporate Affairs, Capital One, he shared the following: “Few businesses are prepared to operate in an environment of radical transparency but that’s the world we’re in. Being prepared means recognizing that every dimension of the company’s conduct has the potential to be challenged in some way, by somebody and in public.
Hyper-Transparency gives stakeholders a new context and increased influence; as a result, businesses end up being highly scrutinised. In the New Normal, if stakeholders are not aligned with what they see, fierce activism is likely to follow.
Hyper-Transparency may have forced a closer alignment between the business and its stakeholders, but it is Interconnectivity that has tied the threads that join all levels of society to one another.
With Interconnectivity, any scandal has the potential to resonate globally, as demonstrated by the #MeToo movement taking down titans of the Establishment everywhere. In the Financial Times, Gillian Tett explained that events like this are possible thanks to “digital information cascades” breeding the Interconnectivity strong enough for such behaviour not only to be headline news but also to put its proponents in a state of sustained public shame. The combination of Hyper-Transparency and Interconnectivity has changed the rules of the game, overturning power structures; it has instead provided victims with a sense of almost immediate justice and an active support network. As Tett said, “Executives of all stripes take note: cascades have power.”
Interconnectivity has changed the terms between the business and its stakeholders; the transparent, complex way in which society communicates now is both powerful and delicate. Bad news travels faster than ever and once the message is out, it’s accessible by almost everybody.
The increased appetite for being up-to-the-minute, the growth in social intrusion and the democratisation and amplification of media outlets have led to the third dimension, Media Anarchy. When I talked with Richard Hamilton, former Director of Corporate Affairs and Strategy at KPMG, he highlighted the risk of Media Anarchy: “Public opinion is the ultimate stakeholder and is alarmingly easily shaped. In an era of social media, those who shout loudest can shape opinions based on their interpretation of the facts and it’s a dangerous concentration of power if a pressure group gets into public consciousness that you have done something wrong, which is an over simplistic explanation of what you have done.”
In 2017, The Reuters Institute Digital News Report found 54 percent of all respondents with online access use social media as a news source. This was even more prominent in the younger generations, with 33 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds using social media as their main news source, compared with a combined 29 percent who used the more traditional TV or printed newspapers as their main source. As there is so much content fighting for people’s attention and social media are often the platform used to consume the news, there has been a shift to delivering shorter snippets of information, with an increasing emphasis on speed and sensationalism over accuracy.
In today’s state of Media Anarchy, the echo chambers of preconceived ideas and beliefs are being reinforced. Furthermore, respected news organisations are side-lining traditional journalistic values in order to fuel the constant demand for new information. Journalism, in its truest sense, is in a downward spiral in the era of instant gratification. With the proliferation of free news and content available online, sales of traditional news outlets have declined sharply. As a result the industry now has to rely more on advertising to make up for this shortfall in revenue. Advertisers demand a certain number of views, which in turn drives the cycle of shorter, sensationalist and often spurious news stories. Where once the fourth estate—the press—was respected and trusted to educate the public on current events, the industry has now fallen victim to a click bait culture with a “publish now, fact-check later” mentality.
As we know from the demise of Cambridge Analytica in April 2018 and the follow-up investigation into Facebook’s handling of fake news during the 2016 US Presidential Election, the impact of fake news on major political, societal and business issues can be severe.
Media Anarchy is not limited to Brexit or Facebook; it could affect any entity at any time. In a polarised society consuming half-truths and with Facebook and other channels amplifying and reinforcing opinions, in the short term, the winner becomes whoever is able to own the narrative with highly emotional claims that touch a nerve in the audience. In the long term, society loses by not being able to hear the truth.
The Connecting Leader is available on paperback and kindle on Amazon.