Digital and visual

The 2017 European Communication Monitor shows that the strategic communication function is undergoing a fundamental transformation

Executive summary: survey highlights

  • Professionals working in communications are fully aware of the trend towards increased visualisation in society, however every second professional has limited visual competencies.
  • Social bots are seen largely as a threat for society and organisations – an explanation why only a few organisations already use social bots.
  • A cultural turn towards hyper-modernism changes the way organisations communicate with their stakeholders.
  • Quality management and continuous improvement is less common in communication departments and marketing, compared to other organisational functions.
  • Communicators in Europe consistently put two issues at the top of their concerns: linking business strategy and communication and coping with the digital evolution and the social web.
  • Strategic contributions of communication still lag behind their operational features.

Information and communication technologies and the digital, social and mobile media that grow from them/develop from them are fundamentally changing strategic communication. This is far more than an instrumental development – today’s economic, social and business environment forces us to rethink the mission and contribution of communication in organisations.

The results of the 2017 European Communication Monitor present this transformation in many domains, four of which are presented in this article: visualisation of communication, automatisation and robots, the need for strategy taking precedence over operations, and that communication quality must become certified, i.e. evidence based and not only implicitly assumed. Communication management has entered the 21st century as a recognised function, but its full affirmation depends on its ability to take the lead in embracing hypermodernity (as an era following postmodernity) and its communicative features.

From word to pictures

For millennia, western civilisation has been based on words. Our education is about reading and writing. Whatever social problem we have, we expect to solve it with higher literacy (‘health literacy’, ‘financial literacy’, ‘media literacy’ and so on). This era may be over. 94.4 per cent of the communicators interviewed for the 2017 European Communication Monitor witness a trend from verbal towards visual communication. Seven out of ten communicators experience rising demand for visual communication from their stakeholders. 89.5 percent agree that visual communication requires new competencies by practitioners, but only ever second believes specific management processes are needed to master the upcoming challenges (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Prerequisites for handling visual communication in organisations

The problem is that, for decades, the most sought competency in communication was written language, first native tongue and later also English. It is therefore not unusual that every second communication professional admits to have limited competencies in visual communication.

            The fastest growth in visual communication is in the use of online videos (e.g. web clips), infographics (e.g. explanatory content), instant photos (spontaneous, unedited) and business graphics (such as tables and figures) – all directly related to advances of digital, social and mobile media. With mobile taking the pole position, this trend will only accelerate.

            As digital natives (people who were born in the digital age) grow older and become the majority of customers, employees and other stakeholders, visual may take precedence over literal with unforeseeable consequences. Professional communicators must catch up.

From analogue to digital

Artificial intelligence and robots are becoming normal parts of our lives. We can talk to our smartphones who predict our needs, and our cars can park without our attention. As machines have replaced many manual workers, so will artificial intelligence replace many intellectual workers – communicators included. Software robots, also known as social bots, produce many sports reports that in the past were compiled by sports journalists. Press releases about financial data can be automatically produced and distributed by software tools.

            Social bots were used in political campaigns in the United Kingdom (in the run up to Brexit) and in the United States (during the 2016 presidential campaign). And although it is obvious that social bots are influencing ever greater part of social, commercial and political communication, the 2017 European Communication Monitor shows that many communication professionals in Europe neglect the trend. Only one in three follow debates about social bots, and 16 percent have no idea about the topic at all. This might explain why only six per cent of organisations use social bots and only 8.5 percent plan to use them in the near future.

            However, knowledge and ignorance are not equally distributed around Europe. Professionals in Northern and Western Europe are much more attentive to the social bots phenomenon than their colleagues in Southern and Eastern Europe (Figure 2).