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Social is the message

Showing an enviable vision, at the half of the last century the Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), keen scholar of media and of their impact on society, had analyzed the issue of globalization, maintaining that the evolution of media supports, especially the wide spread of electronics and IT, would redefine the concepts of space and time, turning all the world into a single “global village”. Since Web and social media have dramatically accelerated this process, people working in communications (and not only!) should pay particular attention to the delicate balance between global trends and values, culture and traditions of local communities. The upcoming Expo 2015 represents an unmissable opportunity to deepen the reflection in this direction.

Now more than ever a communication strategy aiming at being successful for a long time can’t prescind from some key elements like transparency, paying attention to problems and concerns of other people and a strong collaboration desire.

Stéphane Billiet, President and CEO of We Agency, our French agency partner inside the PRGN, has recently written an interesting article on this topic, examining the concept of closeness in the global village and giving some precious advice on how to manage a strong and long-lasting relationship network.

All neighbors in the global village

From the invention of the wheel to the invention of the computer, technological progress never stopped redefining the concept of proximity. Thanks to the Internet, the communications society – at least in its technological dimension -, has become a reality. As a matter of fact, the millions of connected devices circulating in the world: Smartphones, computers, tablets, televisions, as well as vehicles, fridges, shoes…But thanks to the Web, the devices will soon be all connected to the others, as the human beings are already. MacLuhan was right: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”

With the explosion of the social media, the information highways have become “byways”. The digital space is scattered with village squares where, throughout the interactions, opinions are formed or distorted. As everything and everyone are just at one click away, the social distances and the spatial-temporal distances have been redesigned simultaneously. Everything is closer than ever. Not only closer, but also more intimate, more involving.

This new relationship to the world exacerbates the faith of interdependence: yes, the wing flap of a butterfly in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas! This feeling of closeness also develops in the opinion an increased perception of the nuisances related to the economical activity and raises reinforced expectations in terms of responsibility. Who, like Milton Friedman could still claim, “the business of business is business”?

Aware that they can’t consider themselves as fierce capitalists with impunity before the Court of Public Opinion, brands and companies communicate their perspective of accountability. But in this global village or, more precisely in this multitude of villages whose locations are not physical but virtual, the value of the communication lies less in the quantitative production of communication than in the subtle art of cultivating a complex system of relations with numerous stakeholders. These latter, constantly closer and better informed can wield an immoderate freedom of expression.

Everything is known, so everything is said! On the Web, the closeness between people is not due to the distance but to the ability to know everything and to its significant propensity to have a “keyboard-chat”, a smart neologism from Quebec to talk about the online chat. The brand image matters less than its reputation online! Therefore, the piece of advice given by philosopher Epicurus in his piece “Vatican Sayings” has never been so precious: “Do nothing in your life that will cause you to fear if it is discovered by your neighbor”.

The other is also close because of the impact that he has on the experience of the relation. This impact can be real or potential. It can be considered as a benefit or experienced as a nuisance. For instance, it is the case for digital advertising: although the greatest ambition of the brands is to create a commitment, banner ads are seen as invasive and annoying by 65% and 58% of French surfers, respectively2.

Depending on their relationship to the brand, (digital) neighbors can be a valuable ally or a virulent opponent. To communicate at the age of social media has confirmed the primacy of the relation. More than the production and the circulation of nice communication supports, neighbors expect some regard: greater listening, greater respect, and greater cooperation.

Would neighborhood be the future of communication? If companies and brands have to interact with their “keyboard neighbors” more with their next-door neighbors, rules for the communication should also respond to that desire for a relation. Managing good neighborly relations depends on the encounter. Openness is the best way to get accepted by your neighbors and, maybe, to be preferred. All couldn’t be met but they will all be given the opportunity. The formats of relational communication are various. Regarding the Institutions, sessions with stakeholders are fantastic moments of meeting in which consensus between “neighbors” sharing same concerns or issues is built. Events, industrial tourism, open-houses events… are genuine vicinal communication formats. The most delicious example of relational communication takes place every first Thursday of the month at The Bananeraie in Boulogne-Billancourt and Lyons, launched by Michel and Augustin, who both welcome their next-door neighbors and “neighbors of heart”.

Neighborhood-related issues have always forced stakeholders to find common solutions peacefully. Proportionately, the Charter of neighborly relations governing the relations between the residents of the same building pursues the same objective as the international treaties that States sign to ensure peace. Neighborhood evokes closeness. This notion also contains the idea of promiscuity when the distance decreases to threaten the living space. But above all, “Vicinus” the Latin root for the word “vicinal” relates to the idea of a bond. Neighbors are not only close to each other but also linked to each other. Neighborhood involves a relation, whether it is desired or put up.

How to neighbor? By already leaving out technics in order to think and to act like a good neighbor would do. Being a good neighbor means first, adhering to moral principles, which guide the action and second making commitment to do what it takes necessarily to take a rightful place in the neighborhood. For a company or a brand, societal life requires respect of certain rules of “etiquette”: to have respect for the rule of law of course but also to pay attention to others, to listen to all their concerns, to make sure that you don’t bother them or do something that would endanger your neighbor’s life. The neighbor behaves in a civilized manner, he is open-minded, helpful and looks to avoid conflicts and to resolve them fairly when they arise.

Whether the neighborhood is geographical with respect to the neighbors of a company or virtual in the relation that brands have with their publics, the most relevant strategy of communication consists on walking in our neighbors’ shoes in order to become aware of their concerns, expectations and desires. Who really likes to be in a relationship with a noisy, boastful, self-focused and disrespectful neighbor? Yet it is, very often that companies and brands keep on behaving in their immediate environment and advertising communications.

Most companies and brands want to use the communication to present themselves in their best light. By choosing a seductive and persuasive communication, they hope to conceal the critical questions. Can such an approach resist longer to the test for transparency, to information overload and interactivity? Abolishing distances and redefining physical and virtual spaces involve truly giving meaning to the notion of stakeholders. Transparency prohibits the use of concealment, information overload makes the uttering of soothing messages and interactivity harder, by allowing some systematic feedback, requires dialogue.

The notion of good neighborhood that qualifies the incorporation of companies locally and the support brought to the residents all around the North-American continent, must be usefully spread to the way of thinking the communication in the 21th century. All neighbors in the global village? If that is the case, even figuratively, the communication must be more relational than instrumental, less produced than experienced. Though in the last century Marshall McLuhan could claim that “The medium is the message”, now “social is the message”.

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