Leadership in the age of yelling

It’s pretty easy, these days, to get your opinion out there. Whether that opinion is worth hearing is hardly relevant.

As the writer Seth Godin put it, “the less people know, the more they yell”. Of course, the more people yell the less likely it is that anyone is heard at all.

After eight years in television news and almost as long working for the Royal Family, it strikes me that while the age of deference is long gone, the art of leadership in communication remains vital. The world no longer sits up and listens simply because an individual occupies a particular position, or indeed because that person booms out the loudest.

The current attempts to control the spread of Ebola encapsulate the challenge pretty nicely. On an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon in October, at the Hospital Barras Luco in Santiago, Chile, the voice came over the tannoy: “Can I have your attention, please. We have a patient who is suspected to have Ebola. Please leave the room and go to another hospital.”

Covering their mouths, the BBC reported, patients began to flee, but not before one of them recorded the announcement on a camera phone. Uploaded to YouTube the video was viewed 120,000 times in less than 24 hours. Tens of thousands took to twitter to discuss the possible spread of the virus to the country. Except it wasn’t Ebola at all. Tests revealed a day later that the patient was suffering instead from malaria and typhoid. Too late for social media, of course, which had already moved on, at a pace faster than the truth could keep up, to some other tale of misinformation.

Pity, then, those leaders charged in times of extreme crisis with having to plug the gap with information before panic fills it instead. In the case of Ebola – so rapidly evolving a crisis, in fairness, that the situation is likely to have changed even by the time you read this – the ‘official’ message from the world’s health and political leaders has been largely lost in the volume of other commentary, much of it ill-informed at best and nonsense at worst. All of which poses a major challenge, but it is still possible. True, the media might not engage on half the issues espoused by the Prince of Wales were he not the Prince of Wales, but it is because he is a Prince with an opinion, rather than a Prince alone, that he is listened to. There is substance behind the title.

Society may long ago have democratised the right to an opinion, and the internet provided the mechanism for us to listen to them all, but the truth is that not all opinions were born equal. The sheer volume of white noise allows leaders – at least, those with something to say – to rise above it now more than ever.

The leader trying to communicate in this new environment has to fulfil three sets of incompatible sounding tasks

  1. Engage. Democratisation of the conversation – in which everyone has a say – means the value of authority can seem diminished. But a really successful leader leverages both the prestige of their position and the stock of respect built up from being part of a multilateral discussion. Even as social media chatters to itself it will still hush to take direction, but only if that is as part of a conversation.
  2. Get your message right. The role of the leader in communications is to be swift and bold but it is also to be sure. Clarity of thought beats speed of delivery every time (unless of course we take a day to deliver a message that might reasonably be dispatched in an hour).
  3. Adapt to the channel. The leader has to cultivate relationships with the media while at the same time interacting, engaging and understanding the audience directly. The ‘old’ and ‘new’ media worlds demand different approaches, but fundamentally, even in the digital age, so long as human beings continue to write, tweet and broadcast, human relationships matter. On the strategic level, that centres around how the leader gets on with their public; how well they connect with their audience. At the tactical, it falls to the relationships with the media of their advisers and advocates.
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