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Today's events produce tomorrow's communication issues.

Consider, for example, the recent Persian Gulf crisis, the brutalizing of a citizen in Los Angeles by one of the best trained police forces in the US, and the environmental havoc wrought by the Exxon Valdez. They converge on one conclusion: There are no secrets.

In the Gulf, in spite of the best efforts by the military at securing censorship, the US TV network CNN had its much-maligned man on the scene in Baghdad reporting events and consequences of the bombing, which subsequently have been borne out as correct, reflecting a 70 percent off-target rate for conventional bombs and a 10 percent off-target rate for the so-called smart bombs. The consequence of the off-target hit was massive civilian death, injury and property damage.

In the case of the Exxon Valdez, it seems as if every inch of coastline has been photographed, videotaped and dumped onto television. How many other people have been brutalized by the Los Angeles Police Department is an open question. But one event filmed from an apartment window by a casual observer gelled the uncertainties of many and gave unequivocal corroborative testimony to the claims of hundreds.

What does all that have to do with business communication? It is very simple. In the future every business must acknowledge that there are no secrets. There is no private action, that is, action outside public view. There is nothing beyond public scrutiny. There is no event or activity which will not be probed, explored, dissected, or made a subject of public drama by the media if the media, special public interest groups, or others see value in laying out that story.

The primary implication for business communication of the positive sort is to recognize that it must face reality early; it must embrace the public generously and openly, and it must deal with the inevitable sides of its behavior and actions with refreshing openness rather than the traditional denial couched in organization blatherskite.

The president of Stanford University has made a laughingstock of the university because of his superficial and stylish resistance to acknowledging that they had their hand in the federal cookie jar. Instead, he treats it as an incident, an accident, a peccadillo, a minor event. The corporation, however, must learn to distinguish between those events which call for a frank mea culpa and those which are truly minor, in the mind of the public and press.

The US corporation is in a nearly universal learning exercise as it comes to deal with wave after wave of new communication technologies. The learning too often is at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, the progress is real. Consider the latest communication outrage worked on the public: voice mail and voice messaging. In most calls to most organizations you never know whether the message has been received. There is no feedback and no confirmation. If you are a supplicant, as I often am in dealing with the corporation, one can pass that off as mere bad manners. On the other hand, if one is a cash-on-the-barrelhead customer, a regulator, a concerned citizen, a public interest group member, alomost surely they end up hot under the collar. The voguish parsimony, the penny-pinching can be deadly in the hands of automation. The save-a-penny strategy ends up creating hostility and in many cases almost surely costing more than a buck.

The implication is clear: Don't cut corners on public communication.

There is no general model for evaluating, judging, estimating the value of information and hence the value of communication of that information. Surely a Nobel prize in economics lies in the wings for him or her who formulates a modern theory of the economics of information. Meanwhile, many corporations would be well advised to look at communication in the same way that they have begun to look at quality: not to see it as a single thing but as a reflection of appropriate responses to internal and external customers' needs and expectations.

New technologies will have substantial effects on business communication.

Diversity is soon to become the bete noire of the corporation. Diversity subverts the traditional rules of organizational behavior. Diversity is not only in the work force, it is in the customer base, it is in the external environment, and in the competitive context. Just consider a few of these points.

It is now universally recognized that the healthy corporation must respond flexibly to the new work force, a new work force often consisting of people from two-income households or single parents--of people stressed by time and family concerns. The diversity appears in racial ethnic, social and class backgrounds. In the past, the typical corporate manager, when confronted with any issue or problem, was able to turn to the appropriate page in a book of procedures and communicate a sharp, clear message: "Yes," "No," "These are the constraints," "This is what we may or may not do," The pressure for flexibility effectively throws the book of procedures into the trash and forces each manager to treat each problem afresh. Few changes can have a more dramatic effect on the lives of managers in an organization than flexibility.

The diversity of the customer base will have its radical effects. An automobile today is typically designed for that 95 percent center-cut of the population. Those who are too short, too thin, too fat, tall are just left out of the planning. And yet the exciting thing happening in manufacturing today is flexible manufacturing and tailor-making. The opportunity is to meet every costumer's need through a wide range of discretionary choices. When and how industry communicates this will be a big social and business experiment.

Business communication will be directly affected by diversity. There is no single message that a corporation can give out. Rather, there is a body of information that must be cut, shaped and tailored to each target community. The very vocabulary, dialect and format must fit the recipient.

Electronics may have some interesting effects on promoting corporate communication diversity. With the widespread development of electronic bulletin boards we anticipate that every corporation, that is, every one that is in tune with the times, will have its own corporate bulletin board for customers and others outside the organization. Imagine, for example, if a nifty organization such as Lands' End, the catalog clothing company, put together a corporate bulletin board, working it in part as a continuing focus group as well as the place where satisfied and dissatisfied customers can come together and communicate with each other about the products of that company. The effects for the organization could be dramatic, stressful and overwhelmingly beneficial.

Technology will have radical effects on business communication. Three of the most interesting things happening are the development of personal communicator systems, the use of satellites for information communication and for geopositioning, and finally the emergence over the next decade of slow scan, effective video by telephone.

The communication satellites, we have already seen, had dramatic effects in the Gulf situation and will become the power-packed tool of environmentalists and public interest groups. No event in the world, whether it is starvation in Bangladesh or forest deterioration in the Amazon, will elude the satellite dish and its capability to broadcast to and from every spot in the world. No insurmountable barriers to communication by satellite exist today. Every country in the world has people with dishes ready to pick up messages whether the official channels want them to or not.

The satellite dish, when used in geopositioning, will permit every business to have a full-time, instantaneous awareness of every element of its shipment as they move out across the nation and the globe. "Yes sir, Mr. Smith, we have just checked. The truck carrying your order is three miles outside Centreville, about a mile from the town square. Our estimated time of arrival at your facility is 4:53 p.m."--a telephone message from Seattle, Wash. to Centreville, Anywhere.

Emerging out of the combination of satellite communication and fiber optics will be the freeing of the world, the citizen, and businesses of the advanced nations from constraints of time and place. One of the most exciting business implications is the emergence of electronically based virtual communities--communities of people anywhere and everywhere who come together for one reason only, to discuss a subject of interest to them. The ability to create virtual communities will enhance public interest, constituent and consumer interactions about the corporation, with the corporation, and with government.

What will be the consequence when 30,000 people spread across a country form a virtual community, to be concerned about the XYZ Company's labor practices or the quality defects in one of its toys or baby food, or the adverse consequences of taking one of its drugs? Business dynamite.

The personal communicator will radically alter our sense of who talks to whom, about what, when, and where. Their personal communicators, the Dick Tracy wrist-radios, free the wearers from location. The communication will no longer be from point to point, where one may hope to find Charlie Smith. Communication will be directly from Harriet Brown to Charlie Smith, wherever Harriet and Charlie may be. People will communicate not by physcial address, which is now what telephone numbers amount to. Communication will be by a number directly tied to the person. The need to evolve an etiquette for personal communicators will be even more pressing than the need to develop the new etiquette of voice man. But the overall benefits of communication any time, any place to any one will be an overwhelming business benefit. It will, however, as much of communication does, shrink the time available for deliberation and expand the requirements for anticipatory planning.

Slow scan, which will allow video communication anywhere by telephone line, will use images that are refreshed less frequently than those on commercial television but will be excellent for giving real-time, albeit jerky, images of people, but very fiine and stable images of data, information, charts, maps and so on. So we will be able to deliver and interact on the full range of traditional face-to-face meeting information by telephone to any one at any place with telephone lines.

New markets are cropping up everywhere. Two of the most promising for business people are Western Europe, largely being reshaped by the EC '92 accords; and Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The implied multicultural approaches pose a potential communication crisis for business people. Business people must learn to respond not only to linguistic differences but also to the cultural characteristics of the people with whom they will be dealing. Fortunately, much of technology will come to the rescue there. Automated translation will go a long way toward quickly putting the business person on a parity footing in both voice-to-voice and letter-to-letter communication. Far more important will be cultural translation, which will enable one to deal with idiomatic expressions, body language, cultural, environmental and calendric events to put the business person in the best possible position to communicate comfortably with culturally diverse people.

What the new communication issue involves are really two things. First is an expanding and far more complex set of relationships with everyone important to the business: customers, clients, regulators, citizens at large, and the business' own managers and work force. Second are the new technologies which, on balance, will tremendously enhance business capability. But as with all new technologies, if they are of any great significance, they are not mere substitutes for what is now going on. They require learning, training and reconceptualization of their purpose, in this case, business communication.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Coates, Joseph F.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Previous Article:Choosing a training consultant: how to get the results you want.
Next Article:Communicators comment on changing communication strategies.

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