Inverting the pyramid: responding to the seismic shift that has transformed communications

6 years, 8 months ago


Old models have been turned upside down. Communicators today must have a diverse skillset, understand the art of conversation and be savvy in engaging audiences. By Peter Parussini.

Technology and the public cynicism created by the global financial crisis have combined to create a seismic shift in the way communicators need to work.
But the frightening thing is most communicators have still to realise that the ground is rapidly shifting from under them.
The classic communications pyramid with government, institutions and companies at the top, the news media in the middle and the public and customers at the base has become outdated. Under this model those at the apex relied heavily on the news media in the middle to carry their messages to the masses at the bottom. 
It’s why many communicators traditionally focussed enormous amounts of attention on the news media, in an attempt to shape, influence and control how their messages were being communicated. The news media was usually the most efficient way to communicate. And it’s why many journalists with their colleagues as contacts easily transitioned into communications. And why media relations was the most influential discipline in public relations. 
That was pre-GFC. The bad behaviour of many financial institutions that came to light post-GFC, combined with the power of the smart phone and social media, have changed all that. 
That classic communications pyramid has literally been turned on its head.
New reality
The public and customers are now at the top, the news media are still in the middle and governments, institutions and companies are at the bottom. What the public and customers are saying and doing is often covered by the news media and, in turn, becomes a message for governments, institutions and companies to take notice of. 
Worse still, the public and customers are now using social media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and others – to have conversations amongst themselves, completely by-passing the news media and ignoring governments, institutions and companies altogether.
So in this new world order, what is the role of communicators? Where’s our point of influence?
The short answer is that it’s far more complex and requires communicators with broad, rather than specialist, skills to be influential.
Three levels of engagement 
There are so many ways people can and are communicating now. And each different way creates a different level of engagement. Some have said there are three basic levels of engagement – know, feel and do.
Traditional push communications, using a one-way channel like emails, videos and intranet stories, create awareness. Roadshows and events, webinars and line manager briefings create understanding. These approaches allow audiences to "know" something.
Two-way techniques like informal gatherings with leaders and line manager one-to-ones create a "what’s in it for me" and better acceptance, while workshops, gamification and story-telling create commitment. These approaches allow audiences to "feel" something.
But if you want to move beyond all this to create "do", then involving people and sharing their success stories using technology such as internal collaboration tools (like Yammer) coupled with reward and recognition is the ideal way to engage.
Cynical audiences rightly are demanding more from people who want to communicate with them. They want to "feel" and "do". 
More than a press release
After the post-GFC period highlighted the dubious behaviour of some institutions that previously had enjoyed rock solid reputations, the public and customers want more than a press release. Who could blame them, then, for believing some ill-informed comment on Twitter ahead of a CEO missive?
This new paradigm means communicators have to understand the art of conversation. While the news media is far from dead and will continue to be an important influencer, communicators will have to divert time and resources to the public and customers and engage them directly in authentic ways.
It means taking control of social media from marketers who only see it as a broadcast mechanism and using people’s networks to have genuine conversations about issues, including sales and service.
The key is having something to have a genuine conversation about – setting the agenda – rather than just reacting to social media sentiment. For many companies this will mean changing communications and public relations departments into content creators that can produce the stories to drive those conversations. 
ANZ’s content engine
For ANZ Group, it’s seen the creation of our own content engine, a corporate news website called
Banking, finance and economics stories and think pieces are created by a dedicated team of journalists and freelancers, plus senior staff. Once published, the content (which includes video) is shared socially.
To amplify the conversations and its spread, a group of social media ambassadors has been created amongst ANZ’s 50,000 staff worldwide. All other staff have also been given access to and encouraged to join social media. This takes a management mind shift away from the usual command and control approach of most corporates. But it’s no problem once they realise social media commentary from staff is no different from the weekend barbeque conversations they’re having anyway with their friends and neighbours.
This socially enabled environment gives companies a platform to tell stories, the ability to disseminate information quickly and have conversations with broader audiences. That works internally via internal collaboration tools as well. 
Finding and telling
The most important part of all this is the telling of the stories. That means communicators need to be able to find the story in an announcement or an issue and tell it in a compelling and interesting way in a number of different formats. 
It also means companies need to have multiple spokespeople; experts in particular fields. These can either be specific to the business or include non-business matters that are topical like corporate social responsibility. The official company spokesperson won’t do in future because while they have a breadth of knowledge it won’t be deep enough to engage authentically.
All of this means the communications profession is going full circle back to people with the skills of a journalist. Graduating with a communications degree or having worked your way up through human resources or investor relations will no longer do.
We need to think differently about our jobs. We have to think like news hounds, content producers, information disseminators and engagement coaches. While dealing with the news media and politicians will remain part of our jobs, there will no longer be internal or external; just multiple audiences demanding information that makes them "feel" and "do".
The seven virtues of the modern communicator
We need to be able to:
1. Find and tell a story;
2. Write for multiple audiences and platforms;
3. Communicate visually;
4. Have a social media footprint and use it;
5. Create and lead conversations with stakeholders;
6. Coach leaders to have conversations; and
7. Give counsel to leaders.
About the author
Peter Parussini is the Head of Corporate Affairs for ANZ Bank New Zealand.

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The Author

Peter Parussini

Peter Parussini is the Head of Corporate Affairs for ANZ Bank New Zealand.

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