Building legacies in an age of amnesia

It has long been held that human memory is rapidly adapting in line with the proliferation of new technologies and modes of communication.

According to an emerging body of thought, the greater your use of digital platforms, and the more frequently you revert to your smartphone to access information on-the-go, the weaker your short term recall function.

The Google effect – as it has been dubbed by psychologists at Columbia University – has fundamentally changed the nature of what we remember on a day-to-day basis. Researchers have found that the knock-on effect on engagement with news media via technology platforms underscores a curious shift in patterns of consumption: we are more likely to recall the location or origin of a story, rather than the specific details of the story itself. This digital amnesia is therefore altering the way that we process, retain and access information.

With new technology platforms offering new means of engaging with news media – think Snapchat in particular, which by its nature provides instantaneous and fleeting content to digitally hyperactive audiences – it may now be necessary to reconsider the traditional modus operandi of the communications industry and the framework that wraps many a communications strategy: reputation management.

An organisation or individual’s reputation is made up of responses to a series of discrete events, wrapped up in the aura of storytelling. Reputation is ultimately a linear way of framing how a company behaves, based on their actions and responses to past events. Communicators have traditionally lent on the development of these narratives to establish brands’ reputation and frame perceptions – with identifiable effects dovetailed with neatly articulated causes. Simply put, for many in the communications industry, reputation management is effectively reliant on successful handling of inputs and outputs. This is far from an exact science; but it is great fodder for keynote speeches at industry conferences.

But given that our ever-receding ability to immediately recall data and information provided to us in bite size chunks via digital platforms, this framework may soon become defunct.

And in light of the sheer amount of content that is available to rabid consumers of current affairs, the continuing shift to the digitisation of news media, and the proliferation of social platforms, the question for communications advisors becomes the extent to which digital media’s impact on memory influences the development of corporate reputation over the longer term. If you are less likely to recall the specifics of the content that you consumed via Twitter on your commute into work, do organisations and their leaders need to worry about corporate slips, trips or human errors that hit the business pages?

The communications industry has been zealously preaching the risks to reputation that arise from digital media, 24/7 news and the emergence of new stakeholder groups with disproportionate influence on perceptions of a brand or individual. Reputation management is often reactive and framed by responses to challenges; and it has fast become the domain of media lawyers: the art of shutting down bad news and killing stories at the eleventh hour. But it warrants considering the extent to which this destructive risk remains if memory diminishes at a far greater pace than previously. Corporate reputation might be a less useful indicator of a brand or individual’s value than previously thought.

Indeed, a recent FT editorial questioned whether corporate reputation really has any bearing on market position at all. Take United Airlines’ various customer service horror shows, Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and Samsung’s exploding batteries as examples: while all caused short term scrutiny from business commentators, none have had significant impacts on longer term business performance or indeed share price.

CEOs will read this with joy. Finally an excuse not to avoid the indignity and humiliation of a grilling from voracious news hounds, baying for your blood.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

Because even if the traditional, short-term drivers of corporate reputation are increasingly devalued, the question arises as to how an organisation and its leadership really distinguishes itself from the competition over time and in the long-term.

If memory is fickle, how do you effect a shift from short-term negative brand association to overcome deep, socially engineered and stubborn mindsets and perspectives over the merits or failings of an industry to winning affinity, trust, hearts and minds?

The solution perhaps resides in a move towards the creation of impactful and enduring legacies – a more profound connection with individuals, communities and society that exceeds fleeting reputation.

Legacies rely on human and community-centric communications: a philosophy and mindset; a way of observing and interpreting the world that is communicated from the top of an organisation and imbues the actions of its people, its processes and products.

For progressive organisations, it is a question of effectively defining your contribution to popular discourse and debate, your function in society; articulating how you are shaping the future of your sector and beyond.

A focus on long-term legacy creation over short-term reputation management helps to smooth the inevitable bumpy rides. Legacies help to insulate organisations and their leaders from short-term impacts on their reputation.

Look at Airbnb and Uber. Both are the subject of not insubstantial regulatory and political scrutiny across a range of markets geographically; with significant growth comes a lot of reputational challenges. Yet both have successfully managed to maintain and grow market share by communicating a philosophy and a vision that is compelling and empowering for a wide range of communities and audiences: Uber’s leadership on the future of mobility is tantamount to a wider perspective on how cities of the future should function and serve citizens; Airbnb’s embrace of diversity and difference in the wake of increased social division has generated significant brand equity.

And amongst the more established corporates, Unilever and GSK have successfully established their contribution to the future of a sustainable society and the role of business in solving global public health issues respectively. Both have undoubtedly had their fair share of short-term setbacks – but the brands and their leaders have been successful in defining a narrative and legacy that reframes and resets historic perceptions.

Ultimately, there is a need to reassess strategic communications priorities at a time when the news media has irrevocably changed and we are seeing an alteration in the way that consumers of that news are engaging with information.

It boils down to a choice: do you want to hold on dearly to your right to be forgotten and use communications advisors and media lawyers simply as a means to make problems go away; or do you want to play a part in shaping the environment within which you are perceived and ultimately operate?

In this context, a shift in an organisation’s communications mindset to legacy creation and leadership, rather than pure reactive management of reputation, is surely the way forward.