All Articles Leadership Inspiration Jackson Nickerson, on what the elections can teach us about corporate communications

Jackson Nickerson, on what the elections can teach us about corporate communications

4 min read


Jackson Nickerson is a professor of organization and strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, director of the Brookings Executive Education program and a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. His new book, “Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World,” describes a set of guidelines and processes that leaders can use to build trust, create understanding, and accelerate organizational change.   I spoke with Nickerson about what corporate leaders could learn from yesterday’s results. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

What differences did you notice in the way the Obama team handled its communication strategy, before and after the presidential election?

The Obama team appears to have changed its communication strategy after taking office. While there were many aspects to Candidate Obama’s communication strategy, I was intrigued with his use of web-based videos to engage America in a conversation. Brief and focused, these weekly communications created a conversation that helped the electorate understand and to some degree formulate our nation’s most pressing challenges. The Internet also enabled feedback, which is a necessary part of a good conversation.

The practice of engaging in a community-wide conversation greatly diminished after the election. Health care offers a good example. Complaints voiced through the media indicate that citizens did not understand the full range of problems health care legislation was attempting to address. The lack of understanding in our national conversation opened the door to negative rumors and attacks that cumulatively may have had a profound effect on the outcome of this fall’s elections. If people don’t understand in detail what problem is being solved, how can they accurately assess their interest in it and support the solution?

What do you think corporate leaders can learn from that example?

Before implementing any substantial organization change or even suggesting a solution, leaders can benefit from focusing on formulating a challenge with their community. Only if the challenge is fully formulated and understood by a community can the change be accelerated. If you don’t, lack of trust, resistance to change, negative rumors and strategic misrepresentations can and do easily arise. This will undermine —  if not kill — change. The key to building trust and creating understanding is to engage the community in a conversation about the challenge and to collectively formulate the problem before attempting to solve it. While such an approach can initially take alot of time, engaging in a conversation ultimately can speed developing a good solution and accelerate its implementation.

Video has long been a staple of political campaigns. What advice do you have for CEOs who would like to tap its power to drive change initiatives in their organizations?

Leaders need to find ways to engage in a conversation with their entire community all at once if they want to build trust and create understanding. Otherwise, the rumor mill will be one step behind the leader and undermine her or his communications. Short, focused “ChangeCasts” with the leader authentically communicating with the community and the enabling anonymous feedback through simple information technology — as Candidate Obama did — is the foundation of a process that can engage an entire community.

These ChangeCasts can reach all community members practically at once. Web-enabled anonymous feedback provides a necessary voice that can close the circle to create a conversation. Remember, however, that not all video is created equally. Like all good conversations, demonstrating that you listened is as important as what you say. Brief videos framed appropriately ensures that the videos create conversation.

For instance, I do wonder what this fall’s election outcome would have been if President Obama had stuck with the communication strategy of Candidate Obama for leading change?

Readers, what do you think?

Image credit, matthiashaas, via iStock