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Founder Jeffrey Sharlach Returns to Mega Brasil Conference as Keynote Speaker

The last time our Founder and Chairman Jeffrey Sharlach opened the Mega Brasil Congress on Corporate Communications with a keynote address was back in 2004.  The world of communications had changed a lot in the intervening 13 years. 

 

In 2004 I had the honor of being the keynote speaker opening the Mega Brasil Congress on Corporate Communications.   And last week, 13 years later I was invited back once again to open the Congress.    The subject of the three-day conference in São Paulo was “Innovation” and looking back just over the past 13 years gave me a great vantage point from which to observe how innovation had transformed the business of corporate communications. 

 

Smartphones didn’t exist when I made my keynote address in 2004 since it wasn’t until three years later that Steve Jobs would unveil the iPhone.  In the U.S., something called The Facebook had just expanded outside of Harvard University to a limited number of other schools.  Only students were allowed to sign up with dot-edu addresses at these certain universities.

 

Today information travels at the speed of light.  Our traditional gatekeepers—the editors, the publishers, the broadcasters—no longer decide what we see or hear.  Now it’s mostly our selected friends and family that help curate the content that reaches us each day.  They’re the editors deciding what we read.  Depending on which study you believe, the average person spends between two and five cumulative hour each day during the 50-85 times they check their phone. And The Facebook?   Thirteen years later we have 1-point-86 billion active users of Facebook; more than a billion log in every day.   Here are some highlights from keynote address:

 

Although people speak about how much the world has changed, really the way we live today hasn’t changed much since I was born in 1953.  Our jetliners today travel at the same speed as the first passenger jets did in the 1950s.   Our automobiles actually traveled a bit slower—to save gas. But the way we do business--and the way we communicate--has changed drastically. 

 

I grew up during what was known as the golden age of mass media.  Radios and then televisions were becoming ubiquitous in households around the word.   Newspapers raked in millions as they were virtually the only way to hire someone for a job or rent an apartment or sell a used car.

What we know as the modern practice of corporate communications—really the first acknowledgement that communications was something a business even needed to address—came about with the growth of the mass media during the last century.   Suddenly the news media started paying attention to business and businesses needed someone to be the point of contact for this powerful media force.   

 

This was the beginnings of corporate communications as a profession—in line with the growth of the mass media.  And over the intervening decades we’ve earned a seat at the table: today at the largest companies you’ll most likely find the company’s most senior communications executive reporting directly to the CEO.   At the Fortune 500, that’s the case at more than half.

 

We’re at point now where I think every business is keenly aware of how critical the communications function is to the success of the business enterprise.  Last month we saw how one person’s iPhone video turned out to get more attention for United Airlines than the more than $100 million dollars that the airline spent on planned marketing and communications over the past 12 months.

 

We saw a major global brand spending millions each week to disseminate carefully planned messages to carefully identified target audiences and it all falls apart thanks to a couple of bad decisions far removed from any headquarters’ conference room.  Or was that really what caused all this attention?  A lot of bad things happen in the world every day.  That’s not new. And if I had to bet, I would say Dr. David Dao was not the first person dragged off a U.S. passenger plane by the police.   He probably wasn’t even the first person dragged off a United Airlines jet.

 

But whereas before, you might get home and tell your husband or wife, or your coworkers, “You wouldn’t believe what happened on my flight last night.”  Probably sometimes reporters even saw something like this but it wasn’t much of a story.  The airline public relations department could jump into action and most likely, quickly defuse the situation.  After all they had long-standing relationships with most of the key journalists—and don’t forget we’re talking about a handful of notable media outlets, even in the largest markets.   And public statements could be issued with a different point of view of what occurred—and those were very difficult at the time for anyone to correct the official record.  But innovation has changed all that.

 

“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the familiar expression. What we’re seeing now is that clearly a video is worth about a million words since it’s that much more powerful.   And today we have roughly 230 million videographers with their smartphones on hand every day in the U.S.  More than 300 hours of video content are uploaded every hour to YouTube; and every day the billion or so YouTube users watch more than five billion individual video clips.

 

That’s the communications environment we operate in today.  But this transformation in communications is not limited only to the speed and the reach.  That’s part of it but the greater transformation results from that fact than now everyone has the potential to be a communicator.

 

So how do companies need to approach communications in this challenging new environment?  First, I suggest it starts at the very top of any corporate organization.  I think today the best company chief executive officers realize they don’t need to hire a “Chief Reputation Officer.”  Why?  Because finding the nearest mirror will show them who’s the CRO—these days that job is indistinguishable from the CEO.  The stewardship of the company’s reputation—and the reputation of its brands—are the responsibility of the CEO since that’s probably the most valuable asset of any company, more than any factories, patents or even the secret formula for Coca-Cola. 

 

Once that fact—and that responsibility—is accepted then the next step needs to be a company-wide education process of the value of reputation and the importance of continuously managing that.  Not just for the top executives—but for everyone who is out there representing the company. 

 

And this focus on communication must be incorporated in the company’s daily processes and procedures.  The corporate entity needs to be viewed as a living, breathing creature—its health constantly monitored and preventative measures—a wellness program if you will—must be adopted and followed.

 

Successfully managing the totality of the corporate communication process is now one of the most important jobs for any business to be successful.

 

So yes we’re in an age of innovation.  But it’s not our living conditions which have been transformed to any great degree.  The way most of us live, the way we travel, the world has just not changed that much in the past 10, 20, 40 or even 60 years.  What’s changed is communication and those changes have been dramatic.