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The new interface – Challenges for communicators

Some years ago, I wrote a column, ‘On the Brand’ in this newspaper. Since the last of that run of columns, a lot has changed. Communication channels have multiplied, particularly in the form of mobile devices and social networking. The parameters of corporate responsibility, its governance aspects, have either expanded or are being vigorously questioned. ‘Sustainability’ has become one of the most bandied pieces of jargon. And environmental aspects of business are (still) becoming the next big issue.

A number of global events have shaped perceptions of what business should be or become. These include most notably, the credit crunch and the sovereign debt bubble. The issue of the environment manages to raise its head from time to time, but it remains primarily a matter of effects, and inroads on its causes are rare, due to economic and political contingency.
Before the crunch and bubble, two major crises emerged: the food crisis and the fuel crisis. Neither of these crises has ‘gone away’: they have been submerged in immediate coverage of the crunch and bubble. Their impacts are felt daily by the vast majority of people around you, the poor. There is a long list of additional complications.
Today’s entrepreneurs were more often than not educated against the backdrop of productivity and associated accounting and administration. External communication was typically a matter of advertising on the one hand, and the annual reporting requirements of GAAP. The word ‘stakeholder’ was alternatively associated with impediments or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The age of brute productivity is a thing of the past. Even the term ‘information economy’ comes across as dated. The appropriate term now seems to be the ‘stakeholder economy’. More than ever, the enterprise finds itself enmeshed in a web of competing requirements. It is very tempting to reduce the range of stakeholders to government, players in the business environment and the public, but fruitless in its limitations.
About a decade ago, the term ‘radical corporate transparency’ began to make itself known. In terms of the various theories of radical transparency, this could range from decision making in full view of the various stakeholders (with associated accountability) to a willingness to put in public view a large amount of information about the enterprise, its policies, strategies and leadership.
Now, in the wake of the various crises, the groundswell in favour of radical corporate transparency and the success of those enterprises which used the approach, point to its adoption as SOP in future.
On a practical basis, radical corporate transparency impacts the bottom line in the form of higher levels of trust and acceptance of initiatives on the part of stakeholders as well as consumer trust and acceptance of the brand in focus. It also has significant impact on internal operations. These are competitive differentials.
In the operational context, it entails a staggering degree of complexity. It has to be treated holistically, so it has to compensate for functional divisions within the organisation, as well as the the divisions and competing interests within the set of stakeholder groups.
There is a varying degree of risk which needs to be mitigated, depending on the approach which the enterprise takes. The baseline is determined by the identity which the enterprise employs, and thow it positions itself. If the identity and positioning are sound, the ethics unimpeachable and the enterprise is able to evolve, the fallback position is ‘expectation outside of scope of the implicit contract’ and corrective engagement.
However the executive still faces the task of Sisyphus, to repetitively roll the rock up the hill.
This column will hop between brands, stakeholder relations, elements of accountability and transparency and trends. The scope will range from the immediate to medium term. Various tools from new media and social networking to traditional public relations and advertising. 

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