Why business leaders should engage in “real” social networks – face-to-face meetings.
BY DARIO CUTIN
The 2011 meeting of the World Economic Forum on Latin America, which took place April 27 – 29 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, put in the spotlight once again the importance for business leaders to establish contacts and build personal relationships as key tools for the success of corporate communications.
The topics of discussion during the regional Forum in Rio remind us that it is essential for institutional leaders to play an active role in the ‘real’ social networks, in addition to the ‘digital’ ones. This is especially true as executives are called to take a leading role in defining the priorities for the region, as well as identifying solutions to support the region’s social and economic development, education, job creation, sustainability, access to credit, growth, innovation, infrastructure improvements, urban development and social inclusion – all topics that require the utmost attention in Latin America.
Over the last few years, one of the most active debates in corporate communications has been whether – and how – business leaders should participate in social media, the digital platforms in which organizations, brands and entrepreneurs share information and opinions, and engage directly with internal and external stakeholders.
The focus on increasing the business community’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, Orkut, LinkedIn and other online social media has taken attention away from a more basic and essential concept of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility: Latin American business leaders need to participate in key face-to-face events that foster discussion on topics that are relevant for their organizations, including those that address issues on the development of Latin American countries and the region as whole.
Interpersonal and group relationships are key for achieving overall communications goals to support corporate business plans. These connections are forged from the active role business leaders are playing at the World Economic Forum and other events organized throughout the year by Chambers of Commerce, trade organizations, associations, task forces and corporate sponsors.
On the one hand, onsite participation at meetings enables the first step in any successful communication: active listening. Many companies make a great mistake by guiding their communications with assumptions about the perceptions of their internal and external stakeholders.
Enterprise leaders and communications, marketing and public affairs professionals often believe that they have a handle on the perceptions that their core audiences hold, and don’t dedicate the time or resources to ask what they really think. They miss opportunities to listen and seek direct feedback, so their communications plans are designed in a vacuum, based on their own prejudices.
Just a few companies dedicate the time, effort and resources required to conduct market research and opinion polling, or to meet with representatives of interest groups. If more organizations took this approach, they may be surprised on how off-base their assumptions were.
Second, taking an active role in face-to-face meetings allows business leaders to establish contacts, build relationships and maintain a direct and ongoing dialogue on issues of common interest. It is an opportunity to exchange information without intermediaries. To put this in perspective, let’s remind ourselves that one of the key requirements of successful human communication is that two or more people listen to each other and have the interest and willingness to understand one another.
But participating is not enough. Just as two monologues don’t represent a dialogue, if leaders participate in group meetings to talk only about what they want and avoid a constructive exchange, they will rarely connect with their audiences. Nonetheless, if they are able to establish a communications link, they have the opportunity to strengthen their points of view as well as their conditions and capabilities to achieve their goals.
Finally, after listening and sharing, leaders can use feedback to follow up and review their decision-making process, taking into account the new information and perspectives acquired during those dialogues. With these insights, they will be in a better position to improve and grow their business and contribute to the social and economic development of the communities in which they operate.
The role of business leaders
Business leaders must be proactive and engage in the dialogue of issues that are essential to their institutions, countries and regions. To this end, they need to strategically select the appropriate platforms that will allow them to play this role.
Business executives and non-profit leaders need to be clear on the fact that organizations should not leave an empty space in group discussions that are of interest and relevance to their organizations. Lack of participation and silence only leave room for third-parties to speak on behalf or against them.
Therefore, institutions need to strategically identify, assess and select the forums that will enable relationship building and direct communication with their key stakeholders: employees, business community leaders, government officials, regulators, formal and informal opinion leaders, NGOs, academics and any other relevant stakeholders.
Participating in private or public activities requires commitment and willingness from business leaders. It is a task that is non-delegable and non-transferable. It requires time and dedication. But there is high value in the payoff it can have in terms of corporate reputation and business networking opportunities.
In contrast, if leaders decide to hide their heads in the sand, they can get tangled in the confusion and miscommunication that may result from remaining silent or letting third-parties speak for them. This is true in the real world…and in the digital one.
Dario Cutin is Senior Vice President and Partner; Managing Director, Client Services Latin America, Fleishman-Hillard. He can be reached at [email protected]