20 Years Of Change and the Same: Nothing’s More Important Than Communication
By Lee Caraher
I started Double Forte 20 years ago with my then business partner Dan Stevens, with a need (earn a living) and a want (do it in a way that didn’t suck our souls out of our bodies) and a conviction, that communication is the most important skill and discipline in business (and personal life). We opened our doors in the equivalent of a closet in Ghirardelli Square, determined to work only with people and for companies making a positive change in their part of the world, and to get home by 6pm every Friday.
Dan has since gone on to become the doyen of specialty donuts that I can’t recommend enough (my favorite: Pink Champagne), I’ve earned a living as so have many others, and I’ve been able to look myself in the mirror every night knowing that we are helping good companies achieve their business goals that will make the world a better place in all different ways big and small. And I’ve been able to get home (or now turn off) by 6pm on Friday for about 97% of the time.
What has stayed the same for us over time. The FUNCTION of strategic communication: to engage and inform an audience. What has changed? EVERYTHING ELSE! And the result is that communication is more important today than it was back then because of the changes we have all experienced.
Changes Over 20 Years
- How We Communicate
Nothing has changed more in our culture than communication – how we communicate, the number of ways to communicate, where to communicate, the language of communication, the ability to talk to so many individuals, and the ability of individuals to communicate directly with so many other people, organizations, and companies. While communication styles and mediums have obviously changed over the last 4,000 years, we’ve never had so many ways to reach people, and for people to reach us as individuals or entities. McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” has dramatically more permutations today than when he published his seminal work in 1964.
- Social Media
What used to be an exercise in mailing, Fedexing, faxing (don’t get me started) and (gasp) CALLING someone, is now a complicated web of platforms, “languages,” modes, with ever-changing best practices, email, texting, DMing, chatting, and yes, Fedexing, snail mailing and, yes it’s still true on the occasion, talking to someone on the phone (if they’ll pick up).
We started Double Forte before Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and a cadre of other companies that have fundamentally changed the way people, communities, businesses, politicians, and governments communicate. (To put it in perspective I am a LinkedIn member 9,384, and had to be cajoled to join – they now have over 875 million users.) Double Forte has learned and relearned how to communicate with different audiences at least nine times over in the last 20 years.
- The Media
PR used to be equated with “media relations,” and while that was technically not true, the biggest tactic in the quiver to reach lots of people was working with reporters, producers, editors, and reviewers to show how your client, company, product, service, idea, person was important to their audiences so that they would write or produce positive stories about them.
With social media, the media has been disintermediated and the result in the early stages of this is a shit show of paywalls, sponsored posts, misinformation that may or may not be orchestrated, influencers, and that the real journalists have to compete with to be read or watched, relevant and profitable by people and organizations untrained in the art of finding relevant news and reporting it. In a world where everyone has their own media platform, journalism has never been more important. (We could talk for days about the role of journalism vs. information entertainment and critical thinking of the population to discern what matters.)
- Chief Communication Officers
Today the other services PR firms offer, such as strategic communication platforms, crisis communications, sales and channel communications, influencer relations, customer service strategies, recruiting and retaining strategies, thought leadership, social media strategy and implementation, are much more important to and used in the service mix than 20 years ago. The result is that while chief communication officers used to be found predominantly in government and the military, the CCO position is a key C-level hire in more and more businesses of all sizes. What to say and how and when to say it, and how to be in conversation and relationship with audiences has always been a distinct discipline from marketing and requires different skill sets.
The easiest way to see how important it has become to business is to count how many CCOs are at the table across industries. In my career, PR has moved from what seemed like the bottom rung of the marketing mix to the C suite, with most of that movement happening in the last 20 years.
These changes have been challenging to keep up with and exciting to adapt to, and have created tremendous opportunity, not just for Double Forte, but for the field of professional communicators.
What’s More True Today?
- The importance of Crisis Communication Planning
When we started Double Forte, we didn’t want to do a lot of crisis communication because a crisis doesn’t happen on Monday at 10am, it tends to be called into play on Friday around 4:30 pm or Saturday at the crack of dawn. Social media changed that, and now crisis comms is a fundamental part of our work. Planning for a crisis is still critical for every business. “If this, then what” scenario planning with specific actions detailed based on values and safety is one of the most valuable things any organization can do. And the “if this” should imagine the worst thing possible, even when we know the likelihood is low. If you’re prepared with an action and message plan for the worst thing possible, the less worse things come into perspective.
When someone calls with what they call a crisis, my first question is always “is anyone dead?” and then “could anyone die?” That immediately drives the level of crisis into the ground so that an organization or a person who may be overwhelmed can move to act appropriately with urgency.
The importance of crisis plans that imagine the worst was driven home on Monday, January 2 during the Buffalo Bills – Cincinnati Bengals game when Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest in the first quarter and then the country watched and waited while 1) he received CPR for about 9 minutes on live television (he was obscured by the phalanx of Bills players), 2) he was then removed from the field 16 minutes after he collapsed, and 3) the game was ended after more than an hour from when the crisis started….on live television.
I can’t imagine that the comms team didn’t imagine that someone would have a cardiac arrest on the field during a game, particularly after Premiere League and Danish team player Christian Erickson had a cardiac arrest in 2021 during the Euros. In one of the biggest competitions on the planet the same thing happened. Surely this would have been cause for every sports league to dust off their crisis communications plans and make sure they had “cardiac arrest on the field” in the plan.
“Could someone die?” (after CPR starts)
“Call the game.” (at minute 3)
Perhaps the plan was there but had not been vetted by the people who can call the game. It doesn’t matter. Failure.
- Focus is an even better friend
It is still better to do one thing well than to do multiple things poorly, or as I like to say, “crappily.” You will get more meaningful traction with one strategy done well than with many initiatives under-resourced or half-assed. Period. The end.
- The truth will come out…faster than ever.
Mark Twain is credited with saying “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” The truth is just easier, even when it’s uncomfortable. Why? Because obfuscation is harder today, and if someone wants to unravel a falsehood they can, and then they can make that falsehood public on their own platforms that have the potential to travel around the globe in the blink of an eye. More and more people are demanding that the companies they purchase from, use, put in and on their bodies, act and do well. This will not change, and will only increase over time. No one expects perfection, but they do expect the truth and for you to try to improve. Do that, and your business success will be a) faster and b) cheaper. (Unraveling from a lie is VERY expensive.)
I could go on.
As we look to the next 20 years, I know things will change, and at a fast rate. I also know the things that make our work important and valuable will strengthen and multiply. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m sure it will be rewarding as we help our clients achieve their business goals and make the world a better place for their audiences.
*edited to correct name of the Cincinnati Bengals