A crisis of confidence
BY RICHARD WALKER
I've seen a lot of Webcasts recently. I don't exactly feel I‘m any better for it, but I've learned more than one thing about communicating. For the uninitiated, a Webcast sends interactive content across the Internet. The broadcast can be just like a radio show or closer to a full-featured television documentary with talking heads, background film, graphics and whatever else you want. It's like having your own television station, except you pick your audience, and your audience can talk back to you.
So, when a particular company asked me to check out whether Webcasting would be right for them, I thought it would be an interesting project. Like almost every other business, this company doesn't want to be accused of keeping important financial data under its hat, and it certainly doesn't want to be scrutinized by the authorities that monitor fair disclosure. Perhaps most importantly, the company wants to communicate better with the people who make the business tick—those who may very well be in the same town or on the other side of the world.
I've now learned more than I ever wanted to know about things like bandwidth and data packets, not to mention firewall configuration and a whole lot more of the whatnot that goes with office information technology (IT).
When this technology works, it feels as if your screen is talking to you. Suddenly, the promise of a communications revolution looks like it may be real. Trouble is, it often doesn't work well. Sure, it's like watching television, but in 1956, on a cheap set, up in the mountains and with a very bad head cold.
not the processed
want it badly enough
to put up with creaky
with all its breakdowns
Yet, people want to watch Webcasts or even just listen to them. Equity analysts press into conference rooms to watch Webcasts of quarterly results on a large screen computer. Investment fund clients call up to check they are not missing the latest strategy Webcast. Employees even tune in on the sly. There's an appetite out there.
Anyone who works in networked organizations, where performance is always going to be highly dependent on the quality of our communication, can learn something important from this. People want real, personal communication—not the processed handout—and they want it badly enough to put up with creaky technology, complete with all its breakdowns and blackouts.
But here's a funny thing. Speak to those same people who have the appetite for more communication and you'll find they don't trust these new channels of communication.
Shareholders claim, “The Webcast is just more spin and more public relations.” The analyst asks, “I don't believe anything I read in an annual report, so why should I believe what I see in a Webcast?” The employee says, “Trust? You've got to be kidding.”
There is a hunger for more communication, but there is also a deep mistrust of what comes down these new communication channels. This is unusual: In the past, a new medium would generate its own trust. Think of the long golden age of television, when screen play was itself a kind of guarantee of authenticity. But now, trust and transmission have become de-linked. Nothing is taken on face value; everything is up for scrutiny.
Whether this crisis of trust is long-or short-term, I‘m not really sure. But one thing we can conclude: If what you do is dependent on bettering the quality of your communications, then you have a challenge on hand. Repackaging your old story and sending it down a new channel is not going to be enough. If you can't build new grounds of trust as well, you'll just end up spending money. Most businesses have done too much of that already. PM
Richard Walker is European business strategy editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Business Europe, a producer and presenter for the BBC World Service Radio, and a feature writer for The Economist, GQ, Sunday Business and The Sunday Telegraph.
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PM NETWORK | MAY 2003 | www.pmi.org