The Communications Evolution: Climb Aboard, or Risk Being Left Behind

Among the lessons I took away from the 2016 presidential election – and there were many – was the provocative power of visual communications. We heard and read plenty throughout the campaign, but what we saw may have impacted us even more.

Facial expressions and body language during debates, finger-pointing combatants at campaign rallies, memes and videos that exploded virally. Clearly, the public was hungry for raw, authentic emotion – and they got it.

Many of these visuals were used to stir emotion; some tapped underlying feelings of fear, especially when coupled with fiery criticism. All added to our collective impression of the candidates and ultimately to whom we would choose to lead the future of the country. And with consumers now able to select from a wealth of delivery channels, they can block out diverse points of view – oftentimes limiting dialogue to only those they agree with. That means it is even more important to use both data and content in the right context. If we want to be heard, we need to find ways to engage and incite reaction amid ongoing conversations.

Imagery has always been central to how humans communicate, and it has played key roles in elections before (see Nixon vs. Kennedy, 1960). But this year was different, and indicative of the ongoing evolution of communications as a whole. As 2016 draws to a close, marketers and other business communicators preparing for 2017 and beyond would do well to reflect on the changing nature of our profession.

The popularity of social media, and advancements in technology and data science are transforming the industry, like it or not. Visual storytelling, short sound bites, influencer marketing and reputation management are the new muscles you need to build.

The future is visual, and short:
Once, a practitioner’s most important skill was writing. It’s still vital – but visual storytelling stands side-by-side with copy-writing headlines and memorable sound bites as essential elements of any marketing or communications campaign. Our discipline regularly features roles that didn’t exist a few years ago – Video Content Specialist, Digital Strategist, Data Scientist. These are the experts on the front lines today, putting content in context.

Why is this happening? Because audiences demand it. And we do, too.

Recent studies reveal the average attention span is just eight seconds, but most content is much longer. Our job is to ensure that those first eight seconds grab viewers’ attention, and that the next eight seconds convince them to keep watching. If your messages aren’t grabbing and engaging instantly, you’ll lose the viewers. Maybe, to your competitor.

Short, compelling, visually striking content is driving social and other forms of storytelling.

Longer-form content remains essential for telling complex stories; but quick engaging hits are what help sell laundry detergent, concert tickets and even philanthropic endeavors.

No form of visual storytelling has more potential than virtual reality (VR), which sits at the intersection of education and entertainment. VR is not just for gamers anymore. Today, it enables realistic and immersive simulations of a 3D environment that are simply breathtaking.

Can you picture the possibilities for brands? We can.

Ketchum recently launched a specialty to create compelling VR content. Imagine exploring a virtual hotel room before you decide where to book. Or ushering fashion bloggers onto a virtual runway during New York Fashion Week. For Clorox Healthcare (client), we created content that allowed patients to virtually enter a treatment room and watch a 360-degree video of a nurse using new Nasal Antiseptic Swabs on a patient to prevent deadly staph infections.

The star power of influencers:
The future isn’t shaped only by what you see. Sometimes the best way to tell or show your story is by choosing the right influencer to lend his or her voice.

Influencers shape how people think, behave and purchase. From the days when baseball legend Babe Ruth hawked cigarettes and cereal in the Roaring Twenties, to the participation of YouTube luminaries in product release events today, the famous and the infamous have been central to efforts to influence purchase decisions and incite behavior change. But it’s frequently a crap shoot. Brands often pay top dollar to a superstar, hoping his or her endorsement or participation will shine a positive light on their product or cause. It’s a time-and battle-tested approach that often works quite well. Or seems to.

Today, however, organizations are demanding to see tangible ROI beyond media impressions and “likes” to justify the value of influencer programs. Plus, Big Data and advanced analytics have hastened demand for more precise audience targeting; indeed, a hyper-local influencer campaign aimed at Millennials in a 10-mile radius around a new store may be more effective than a broad-brush celebrity ribbon-cutting appearance.

Data science has put a finer edge on how influencer programs are assessed. Will a pricey mega-star generate a greater return than a highly-respected blogger with a small yet passionate following? The answer lies in the data. As a result, companies like our partner Tubular Labs – which tracks global video content across platforms and devices – are growing in importance.

Reputation is made (or lost) in a moment:
And just as influencers have the power to help brands take off, the prevalence of citizen journalists means even small missteps can incur big hits to a business.

With social media “reporters” at the epicenter of any event – including crises – corporate reputation teams must be ready for activation, 24/7. The small buffer that once existed for crisis teams in the pre-Internet era is gone; today, the time to react and respond is further condensed.

You can’t wait until your initial response is perfectly scrubbed, because the rocket of public opinion has left the launching pad – and is careening through cyberspace, out of your control. When an issue explodes, leadership must act in the moment – or otherwise is assumed to be covering up something, and that furthers speculation and misinformation.

Very few senior management teams are prepared for this new crisis communications paradigm, and fewer still participate in scenario building or crisis simulations that shape how best to react in these situations. Round-the-clock social listening and tracking tools create awareness, not an action plan.

Beyond issues and crises, corporate reputation now hinges on the new reality that – as my Ketchum colleague, Sean Fitzgerald has described it – “Businesses exist at the will of the people.” Looking at reputation through the lens of all stakeholders must be at the core of any reputation management strategy.

It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun. Maybe. But as technological advancements and consumer preferences continue to evolve, the manner in which we communicate must progress accordingly. And fast.

Watch Barri Rafferty & Cision Global’s Ken Wincko discuss the future of communications tomorrow, 11.29, at 3:00PM EST here.

A version of this article can be found at CommPro.biz.

About Barri Rafferty

As Ketchum's Worldwide President, Barri Rafferty works closely with Chairman and CEO Rob Flaherty and other leaders of the firm to guide agency strategy and business development. In addition, Rafferty leads Ketchum’s nine offices in North America as well as Ketchum Digital and Ketchum Sports & Entertainment. She also oversees complementary businesses Access | Emanate Communications, Capstrat, Harrison & Shriftman and Interfuse Communications. Rafferty is part of the 20-member Global Leadership Council, which focuses on guiding Ketchum’s strategy, client service and performance. Barri has a legacy of client service and continues to advise many of the agency’s largest clients. Outside of Ketchum, she participates in a number of groups including the sustainability taskforce for the World Economic Forum and is a member of Arthur W. Page Society Page Up program. Rafferty sits on the board of StepUp, an organization with the mission of empowering girls from under-resourced communities to become confident, college-bound, and career focused and she is also a member of the governing body of OmniWomen, Omnicom’s Leading Women’s Network, for which she holds quarterly panel discussions featuring prominent women. She is the recipient of the Plank Center Milestones in Mentoring Award. Barri is a graduate of Boston University (M.A) and Tulane University and enjoys watching soccer, volleyball, and dance - especially when her son and daughter are involved! Connect with her on Twitter: @barrirafferty