Egbert Deekeling spoke to the German "kommunikationsmanager" magazine about populism, quality journalism and social media, about the increasing significance of purpose and sustainability as well as changes in corporate communications and the future of the communications sector.
Read the English version here.
kommunikationsmanager: We live in turbulent political times. Journalists and scientists are coming in for increasingly harsh criticism from populists, even when they work with incontrovertible facts. What does this mean for “truth seeking” in our society?
Egbert Deekeling: The strength of our democratic society has always been our ability to accommodate different groups and positions. But we can also see that our ability to do so has been declining for some time now and that process of erosion has accelerated over the past few years to a critical degree. Without any common ground, a society will soon disintegrate into opposing camps, each with their own hostile and irreconcilable truths. We are seeing that now in the USA, but increasingly here in Germany too. All of this is an expression of deep-seated social upheaval. What we are currently experiencing is a crisis of democracy.
Truth seeking is becoming increasingly difficult under these conditions. Social media offer huge platforms for this social polarisation, as they enable everyone to broadcast their particular truth to a large audience. Why then persist with the arduous task of truth seeking if everyone can find their own particular truth? Social media has replaced armchair politics at the local pub. Regulars no longer chew the fat around their favourite table. And the audience is changing too. Things that used to be said in a more or less protected room are now being aired to the general public. It is a fallacy that supposedly unspeakable things were not being said anyway behind closed doors. The difference is that they are now being aired for all to hear. That is what has changed and with it our whole debating culture.
You operate worldwide. Is this phenomenon something you only see in other countries like the UK, USA or Brazil? Or do we have to brace ourselves for increasing “fake news” here in Germany too?
It is already here! You only need to think of Attila Hildmann, KenFM or AfD populists to see that. They work by deliberately spreading disinformation while demonising quality media and scientific analysis. But we are still far removed from the extent this has reached in the USA. Thanks to our history, we here in Germany have a certain natural resilience to hate speech. However, our resilience is now wavering, not least because the populists are being portrayed by the media as bigger and more influential than they really are.
It is possible to learn from such undesirable trends. What have the likes of Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro taught us?
The human desire for simple solutions in a complex world should never be underestimated. The driving force behind all the developments we are seeing in the USA and elsewhere is fear – fear of job losses, fear of social relegation or simply fear of the unknown. Populists instinctively recognise this and turn it to their own advantage. It is not easy to counter such fearmongering. First you have to realise that lies, distortions and denials are all part of their strategy, but unfortunately it is very difficult to argue against them. What is needed to effectively and sustainably counter such scare-mongers is good rapport – by which I mean closeness in a physical and symbolic sense. To achieve this, politicians have to address issues at the local level and seek conversations with people – using social media as a support tool too. Offering political explanations via talk shows only increases the level of indignation and alienation. It is no substitute for real political engagement – and actually the cowardly way to handle things.
What responsibility do you think social media platforms have for these “undesirable trends”?
They cannot be held responsible enough, in my view. Social media platforms are fundamentally and rapidly changing the social and political opinion-forming process in ways we could never have imagined. Of course, they are also creating space for new forms of participation and social interaction.
However, for far too long these undesirable trends were ignored by the social media giants. It took social and political pressure before any attempt was made to correct the tide of misinformation, at least on the part of the major platforms. Yet it still seems half-hearted and lacks the necessary transparency. Perhaps the conflict between business model and political responsibility is something that cannot even be resolved by the social media giants themselves. It was not for nothing that Mark Zuckerberg went before the US Congress, practically asking for greater regulation. After all, nothing is worse for business than regulatory unpredictability.
Is more regulation needed or are the self-imposed measures taken by Facebook, Twitter and the like sufficient?
As I said, I am convinced that even full-bodied voluntary commitments are not enough. There is simply too much at stake! In my view, we need clear, comprehensive regulation. In Germany, the Network Enforcement Act is an important step forward in this regard. But we also need transnational, global regulation.
At the same time, public prosecutors must be given stronger and more effective powers to counter hate speech and criminal content. People need to be afraid of being dragged before the courts if they breach internet laws.
How do you see the role of quality media in the future? Will they decline in importance and be replaced by “Twitter pros” with huge followings?
I fervently hope quality journalism will be preserved. It is indispensable in any democracy. But naturally it has its price. Big stories, like the Panama Papers for instance, are only possible with the international collaboration of outstanding investigative journalists. No blogger or Twitter pro can ever replace that.
All this change has had a major impact on political communication. But what is the situation in the corporate communications field? Is the role of PR changing to a similar degree?
Of course! Communications have become digital and much faster as a result. At the same time, companies are under much greater scrutiny than ever before. They are social protagonists inextricably linked to certain entrepreneurial activities, expectations and demands. Dealing with all that means engaging in systematic dialogue with investors, customers, politicians and the general public. This is a fundamental expansion of the role of corporate communications.
Via their own newsroom, content management and corporate communications platforms, companies can now address their target markets more directly than before. Has this led to a decline in the importance of corporate press releases in traditional media?
Definitely! The role of the gatekeeper within an editorial team is now less crucial. At the same time, it is becoming more challenging to convey a consistent message to different audiences, each with their own interests.
The reduced importance of the gatekeeper means companies are also losing their communicative comfort zone. You see, this trend towards more direct, open and dialogue-driven communications increases the risk of making errors and also fielding direct and, at times, vicious attacks. The storm of abuse Adidas encountered a few months ago is one good example of that.
Issues like sustainability, responsibility and purpose have simultaneously become more important. What does this mean for corporate communications?
Companies are facing increasing social and political pressure to explain and defend their practices. How will the company and its business contribute to solving the great challenges of the future? That is the crucial question that decides the future level of acceptance, reputation and business success of the company.
For corporate communications, this means focusing on multi-stakeholder value, which – as I said before – is hugely extending the scope of our profession. In other words, the communications team not only has to systematically convey a company’s social licence to operate but also contribute to it and to some extent make it relevant from a business strategy perspective. That is a huge task!
You see, the stated purpose has to reflect the fundamental, non-negotiable attitude of the company as a social protagonist and also set corporate goals in relation to the social benefits. This is not a superficial marketing tool focusing solely on identifying a company’s product benefits as part of its brand building process. That would not be too short-sighted and also dangerous as such a narrow purpose will not stand up to the demands and expectations of public scrutiny.
How has the role of a renowned PR agency like yours actually changed?
Our work is also more complex, fast-paced, and demanding. Above all, we are being much more closely consulted these days on the actual corporate strategy process.
This applies particularly to situations where the focus is on prioritising and explaining complex causal relations, such as the effect of megatrends, the allied expectations of shareholders, or the consequences of neo-ecology and connectivity. It is hugely fascinating to observe how major conglomerates and companies deal with the new paradigms for strategic decision-making about their future direction. We are experiencing an increasing need for navigation of corporate communications strategies. It is more and more important these days for the corporate strategy and the communications strategy to be thought out together.
One of our key tasks is to frame the corporate strategy correctly, i.e. make it comprehensible and easy to communicate. This includes formulating a purpose in close consultation with top management. In this way, we are also helping to shape their corporate transformation processes. In doing so, it is always our aim to support the transformation processes externally and internally in all communications-related areas and across all themes, as part of an overall strategic communications service.
You have spoken about a “PR decade”. What do you mean by that?
That might sound a little pompous at first. But we have seen a dramatic process of change in our line of work, which really began about ten years ago with the upsurge in social media and the dramatic decline in journalistic navigation and gatekeeper functions. We are seeing how companies themselves are becoming publishers in their own right, with their own newsroom and content management teams. Currently, we are experiencing a huge personalisation of corporate communications, where CEOs themselves are becoming the mouthpiece of the company via social media.
The new multi-stakeholder paradigm is also one of the primary drivers of the trend, combined with a clear understanding of sustainability underpinned by the corporate strategy. This means corporate communications are gaining a new level of importance, the like of which we have not seen in the history of our profession, and which will continue to become institutionalised in the future – both inside and outside the companies themselves.
At the same time we are being confronted with highly problematic developments which – in a sense – is the dark side of that new power, with underhand manipulation techniques enabled by a lethal combination of geo-targeting, data analysis and content management now being employed. We are seeing instances of border crossing and blurring of the lines when it comes to determining what constitutes quality, opinion-forming journalism and what is merely paid influencing. How do we tell what is legitimate advertising and where the subtle art of manipulation begins? The PR firm “Cambridge Analytica” is a case in point – that name now being synonymous with a brand of particularly unscrupulous behaviour.
Above all, the task of our sector is to come up with more detailed and extensive rules of engagement or professional ethics. A new form of compliance is required, perhaps as an extension to the “Code d‘Athènes”, with sanctions for breaches of the code. The power – or rather increasing power – of our professional field must be regulated.
This need for greater regulation also illustrates a dramatic rise in the importance and the impact of our profession.
This interview has been published in German in the magazine „kommunikationsmanager“ in December 2020.