Monday, December 13, 2010

Wikileaks: implications for the communications industry.

With a few mouse clicks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and volunteer staff of Wikileaks have picked up the chessboard of international politics and given it one hell of a shake.

It’ll take a while for the dust to settle… and it’ll be very interesting to see what the game looks like when it does.

In reality much of the changed landscape of this ‘new game’ will only affect people directly involved in the Machiavellian cut and thrust of international politics.

However the various scandals have drawn into focus some very interesting changes in the way people share information. And if like me, you’re involved day-to-day in corporate communications (an industry that you could argue is a minor league version the international diplomacy game) then you really should be watching closely. Here are a few concepts that have caught my attention:

The scientific approach to communications.
When Wikileaks published the “Collateral Murder” tapes showing a United States helicopter machine gunning civilians and journalists they didn’t just release a ten second clip… they released the full, unedited camera tapes. Sure you could see an edited version, but if you didn’t believe the conclusions they drew, you could download the unedited version and decide for yourself. It’s what’s known as the scientific approach journalism.

The idea stems from the dusty world of peer-reviewed science journals where you don’t just publish your conclusions; you publish the hypothesis, the methodology and results too. The idea is that readers can view your data and see if they draw the same conclusions, or if they like, repeat the experiment and see if they get the same results. It’s a fairly high standard to achieve, but it’s one that clearly separates objective from subjective; fact from opinion.

In the pre-digital age, cost and logistical constraints prevented the news media from using this approach. The result was an arrangement that forced readers to rely on the subjective opinions of reporters and the subjective choices of editors. It was an imperfect system, to put it lightly.

But on the internet there is no such constraint and so we see a growing number of communications organisations showing not just the tip of the inverted pyramid… but publishing the whole thing (mummies and all).

So how does this relate to someone selling mountain biking holidays, or real estate packages?

Well, twenty years ago the column inches constraint applied to corporate communications too - so you could say “trust us you’ll love it” and people would generally be happy enough with that. But as the world’s ability to transmit and process information grows it seems likely that the businesses that say “trust us you’ll love it… but if you want proof, here it is” will be the ones who come out on top.

Of course not everyone will look at that proof; not everyone has the time. But if you’re trying to convince people to buy into your idea, be it a product, political campaign or news story; and you’re not prepared to show them demonstration videos, independent field trials, customer reviews, etcetera to back it up… then you’ll need a to think up a pretty damn good reason why not.

No more porky-pies
The second revelation to come out of Wikileaks actually stems back to an essay “Conspiracy as Governance” written by Julian Assange back in 2006. In the essay, which forms the philosophical underpinning of Wikileaks Assange argues that unjust organizations by their nature will create leaks and that those leaks will have a negative nonlinear effect on them.

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.”
Once again Assange was writing is in the context of tyrannical government regimes… but again the principles apply on a smaller scale. As the world’s ability to share information increases, organizations that behave duplicitously; whether that’s over-selling a product, over-spinning their public relations activities or just plain lying; are increasingly going to find themselves outmanoeuvred by their honest competitors.

That’s not to say you can’t have conflicting points of view and it definitely doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with everything that you do (in fact having some people vigourously dislike what you do can galvanise your supporters and actually be beneficial… but I digress). However, what it does mean is that by keeping your rhetoric and your actions in line you’ll make your organisation more effective - and more profitable.

One obvious sticking point will be the traditional difference between ‘back-of-house’ and ‘front-of-house’ communications. Communication is always going to be context specific and shifting contexts will invariably distort the meaning of the message. Anyone who’s taken their spouse to a work Christmas party will understand.

There is however a big difference between this sort of cross-contextual friction…and conspiring to deceive the public at large. It’s a hazy line I’ll admit, but with information passing between contexts more freely than ever, it’s one that professional communicators are going to have to watch very closely.

What’s your name again?
On a more technical note, it’s interesting to observe that Wikileaks was able to operate almost entirely unhindered without even having a domain name. After EveryDNS cut ties with the company claiming the denial of service attacks on the Wikileaks site were threatening its ability to serve other customers, the URL effectively ceased to exist.

You’d think they would have been dead in the water, but the site was still easily locatable via Google at its numeric IP address: and continued to run more or less unhindered.

So what? Well, the old marketing adage: “build a better mousetrap and the world with beat a path to your door” is generally quoted as a description of how things used to be done – before the wonders of modern marketing. It seems these days, with a little help from Google the saying is true once again… especially if you’re looking to catch very big, corrupt mice.

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