Don’t “Downton Abbey” your communications

Are your communications strategies so antique they belong in the Edwardian England of Downtown Abbey? Remember: you need to adapt with the times…

I recently had lunch with a colleague — a senior vice-president — and heard her confession that she had just “unlocked” the privacy settings on her business-related Twitter account. “My communications people hassled me so much, I finally gave in,” she said.

At least she admitted that her privacy ideal had been old-fashioned. And she changed it.

But there are a lot of “old-fashioned” ideas relating to communications that still survive. For example:

  • Does your company have an antique “approval process” that requires executive sign off for every story being published on the company website?
  • Are you more concerned about “being 100% safe” than being timely?
  • Do you ask your communications staffers to manufacture quotes from the CEO rather than let him or her speak to them directly?

I’m not promoting sloppiness when it comes to communications. But most companies and organizations can benefit from becoming more responsive. Agile. Prompt. Why? It helps you get your message in front of the public. It makes your employees respect you more. It engages your company in the conversation.

If you fear the conversation, then you’re stuck in another century – perhaps the same one in which Downton Abbey occurs. The popular BBC show illustrates the grand societal changes occurring in England in the late-1910s and early 1920s.

In those days, it suddenly became normal for people to work. Inherited wealth took on the aura of something slightly fusty. Women started to escape the notion that the only option for life was engineering a successful marriage (to someone as wealthy as possible). But on the TV show you can see how these changes are vastly uncomfortable to the “oldsters.”

Head of the household Robert Crawley, played by Hugh Bonneville, is both highly sympathetic and hopelessly out-of-date. His mother, Violet Crawley, performed by the incomparable Maggie Smith, seems positively antediluvian (but adorable only because so many of her lines are screamingly funny and because Smith is such a remarkable actress.)

The world changes. Sometimes it changes quickly. I began my working life in newspapers. When I started, I wrote my stories on a typewriter. There was no such thing as a fax machine. I recall seeing the early cellphone, the size and weight of several extra-large tins of beans.

Today, however, our cellphones fit in our pockets (and take photos!) and newspapers across North America are dying.

Don’t let your company suffer the same fate as newspapers by clinging to the notion that communications can be controlled. It can’t. It can be managed, but only if you loosen the reins just a bit.

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