The empowerment / expectations dilemma

“We want to be joint decision makers…”

Chairman Europe & CIS Edelman
Visiting Fellow Henley Business School

Public Relations is good at quite a few things that really matter in organizations, and in society.

Perhaps PR’s strongest contribution its ability to add breadth, depth and nuance in contextual analyses of problems, and in finding solutions through good relationship management. I.e. to understand a problem in its entire complexity and find ways to solve it interactively.

Let me – without neither false modesty nor any great hope of achieving a meaningful breakthrough – try and apply those traits to a general societal business dilemma. It has just begun to take enough shape for me so that I can put it into words.

As the world has become flatter, to use Thomas L. Friedman’s great short-hand for life on a more interconnected, more empowered and certainly more interdependent planet, its citizens are increasingly less trusting of those in positions of economic and political power.

Research, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer, records a steady erosion of trust in leaders, and thus a weakening of the authority with which leaders could otherwise engage groups within their reach and steer towards shared goals.

This is adding a structural weakness in societies around the globe at a time when we face economic and social problems that should unite business, government, consumers and citizen groups across borders and cultures.

As a result, individual companies and whole sectors today feel totally misunderstood. And consumers feel disenfranchised – and “sold to” rather than engaged and listened to.

First, what companies need to internalize – and quickly – is that it would be wiser to treat stakeholders as citizens and not just as economic players. We consumers want to be joint decision-makers as well as buyers or producers of goods and services.

The situation – irritated and increasingly strident consumers on the one hand; alienated and “misunderstood” businesses on the other – is one I describe as the empowerment-expectations dilemma.

How did we get here? And is there a way out?

We got here through decades of aloof corporate behavior and substandard communication.

There has been buyers’ skepticism in the market as long as there have been markets.

But ever since corporations began systematically to use advertising, PR and marketing to create strong user enjoyment imagery around their products, corporate world’s underlying message has been this: “Don’t you worry about a thing, dear consumer. Our product takes care of your needs. Just enjoy it. Don’t worry about where it comes from, how it is made, who makes it under what conditions, etc. Just enjoy your better quality of life. We have everything under control. We are the experts”.

And then came the 1970s and 1980s, and developments up until today. Environmental awareness, health awareness, supply chain awareness, , sustainable living awareness, energy use awareness, natural resource awareness, climate change awareness– etc.

The corporate stance, however, has largely persisted, but become more hollow, less defensible, and either more strident or more diffused. And trust has steadily eroded.

Generations of company leaders and their PR folk missed a chance to put the greater good provided by their wares into societal context.

So now no one “understands” energy or healthcare or environmental impacts. And companies feel unloved and misunderstood. They now face the daunting challenge of having to educate and inform stakeholders while under fire from them, rather than among the relative calm of decades past.

On the other horn of this dilemma sits an empowered but largely uniformed and increasingly self-absorbed consumer-citizen.

They want to be heard. But, one more generalization if I may, they also missed their chance to develop a better understanding of the wider context of the goods and services they enjoy, and the habits these goods and services create.

So, consumer-citizens, although dissatisfied and longing to be included and consulted, are as likely to simply “like” or “dislike” as to delve into complex policy, technology and behavior choices.

That’s the empowerment-engagement dilemma.

To get to a better place, companies who need to come off their high horses. If your stance over generations has been “don’t worry, trust us, we’ve got this under control” you now need to begin a real dialogue with your restive, ill-informed, disengaged and certainly less trusting stakeholders…

No magic wand, but genuine public engagement on the basis of a sound, inclusive and humble stakeholder approach – “let us solve problems together” – would make for a good start.

That might also not only help build better relationships with consumer citizens, but get them actively involved. Something’s must happen. Otherwise, eroding trust will, in time, paralyze us, and create the mother of all dilemmas.