Borders, listening and fiction

Why a new crowd-sourced journalism platform should inspire corporate communicators to achieve their social responsibility

I was inspired to hear that The Correspondent, a Dutch crowd-sourced news platform, has just announced it will launch its English-language edition in early 2019, with the backing of US left-liberal stalwarts such as Judd Aptow and Kamau Bell.

(Above photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash)

I’m inspired by The Correspondent - and think you should be, too - because its mission is to “replace the sensational with the fundamental and the recent by the relevant.” By using its crowdfunded journalism to focus on underlying societal trends rather than the day-to-day blizzard of confusing, often irrelevant hype, The Correspondent does more than describe the trouble we’re in, it prescribes solutions for the challenges society faces.

I want to see the communications function work towards the same goal set out by The Correspondent. I believe that our ultimate responsibility is to fight disinformation with facts, to fight polarisation with collaboration, to fight isolation with a sense of community.

Though our new digital reality has seemingly created enormous possibilities, particular for us communication professionals, it has also generated a craving for nonstop reaction. Moreover, when using social media, many suffer from addictive effects and feelings of anxiety. We are more connected than ever; yet at the same time seem further apart from one another: striking contact but no real connection. People seem to have less trust and fear of the unknown is growing.

This distrust, isolation and polarisation is reflected on the macro level, as I see in yesterday’s alarming Guardian report that “one in four European vote populist.” The same social media platforms that have enhanced our day-to-day work as communications have also enabled the spread of rabid disinformation and political disruptions: “Today, populists are the stars in political cyberspace, far outshining their centrist opponents.”

The communications profession can lay a leading role in returning balance and clarity to this state of affairs. Inspired by The Correspondent, I would like to share three mantras that I have formulated over my years as a professional communicator working in, among others, the Oil & Gas industry, for campaigning NGOs, at global agencies and as a consultant.

1) Let’s communicate to break down boundaries

I have always thought borders to be a curious, imaginary phenomenon. In my work, I am a bridge builder, constructing them across presumed borders: between head office and local offices, between different departments, between the different individuals within teams, between an organisation and the outside world, etc. I have learned to see differences and resistance and constantly try to break through boundaries that stand in the way of real connection.

2) Let’s learn to truly listen

Connections are only possible if we really listen carefully. Listening is such an underestimated element of good communication. The communication function is too often determined by sending: we must also learn to listen, to ourselves and to others. The philosophy of Deep Democracy* achieves this by listening to critical people around us, but also to our own critical voices. Daring to doubt helps deliver strength in the form of nuance. The challenge is to try to turn resistance into a 'force for good'.

3) Let’s harness the power of fiction

I believe that we as individuals can only truly be reached through stories. The depth a novel offers and the pace that one chooses means a novel can support you to understand complex realities. Moreover, our empathy increases by reading fiction, which is vital for real connection.

Can we communication professionals - across the borders of our sectors - work together to perform our function sincerely, to really listen and thereby take responsibility for our role in society? This responsibility would go beyond the organisation for which you are working. The accountability is, therefore, not only to your client, your supervisor, or your boss, but also to all stakeholders; internally and externally.

To invite people to be part of this approach we can use the most powerful instrument of our profession: storytelling. We can truly connect people through the creation and sharing of real stories. What if we go from storytelling to 'story doing', and ensure stories to be supportive when making difficult decisions?

We think we create stories, but it is actually the other way around, stories create us. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said it already: "Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your language; it becomes actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destination."

This blog post draws on an article I am preparing for the forthcoming book Galjaardboek 2018, to be published on 11 December 2018.

Inge Wallage

Inge Wallage is Managing Director of the EACD and owner of The Butterfly Effect: Strategies for Transformation. Her professional experience includes Engagement Director for International Water Association, Director of Communications at Greenpeace International and Vice President Communications International E&P at StatoilHydro.