Big changes in society call for strategic communication
by Marita Vos,
professor emerita, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland
I used to tell my students, that change and communication are undeniably intertwined. Without change, who needs to know what’s happening and make sense of it all? Monitoring a changing environment, bringing change about, innovation and adapting to change all require communication. Nowadays, change is even more pervasive in society and this will take the profession to a new level. Change causes pressure but also stimulates creative thinking. Disruptive change will challenge us all, especially new technology related to energy transition, mobility and robotics.
Recently, Uber was criticised when an automatically driven taxi car was involved in an accident. A video showed that the driver, present for safety purposes as the technology is still new, was looking at his phone and, just like the car sensors, he did not take action to prevent a collision when someone crossed the street. New technology may not have made a difference in this case, as the victim crossed the street suddenly in the dark, right in front of the car. Of course, it did not help that the man behind the steering wheel was looking at his phone. It reminded me of another road incident in my country where a traditional car suddenly hit a bicyclist from behind on an otherwise empty road. The car driver was suspected to have used WhatsApp. In the first case, the use of automatic driving was debated in public, whereas in the second case it was the suspected use of WhatsApp behind the wheel that caused discussion. Both incidents relate to human-technology interaction, sense making of new technologies, and communication about risks.
New technology brings new risks and induces market change. Where disruptive change is ongoing, a chaotic period follows with tensions between the old and the new system. New industry struggles to gain a foothold, while industry at the end of its lifecycle maximises creating new affairs, for example, by reopening polluting energy extraction sites or continuing to sell ‘clean diesel’. Fierce competition leads to extensive use of lobbying, propaganda and ‘alternative truths’, as was duly noted in Facebook discussions among professionals. Earlier we investigated the Volkswagen diesel affair. Notably, such car manufacturers still have wide support of politicians and car buyers alike, notwithstanding the growing perception gap between fans and critics. These are strange but exciting times, not only for us as communication experts.
Similarly, the change process of energy transition has consequences on many levels, all of which needing communication. Promotion of renewable energy is urgent, especially in the Netherlands where the gas extraction needs to be brought to a halt in the coming years, as its negative consequences increasingly burden the region. Thus, on the ministry level, contracts with big national and foreign clients are being renegotiated. Energy tariffs and subsidies are in place to steer behaviour, while rethinking the local energy infrastructures and related consequences for users. Naturally, the negotiations, ways to influence behaviour and impacts of infrastructure changes call for strategic communication. Moreover, there also is the level of communities. For example, the apartment building where I live has a green energy committee of volunteers engaging all inhabitants, as both collective and individual actions will soon be required. It’s interesting to be involved in such bottom-up initiatives.
Thus, change is pervasive and creates challenges that our field of communication can greatly contribute to. In other words, we can help shape the future by communicating about such changes and engaging people in an inclusive manner. It is great that BledCom 2018 chose the theme of crisis and change. Communication in turbulent times, indeed! My free book may provide more inspiration.