A few days ago, I stumbled upon an old relic that gave me reason to pause: my undergraduate degree thesis on the winning and losing of the 1997 Irish general election.
The choice of topic, and the title “Image Over Substance?”, reflected my then-fascination (and later obsession) with the decision-making process and what influences it.
Flicking through it 22 years later, to my surprise, it hasn’t aged too badly. I’ll grant you that it’s unlikely to appear in any academic bibliography, and my youthful enthusiasm and the lack of a good editing job are apparent. Nevertheless, its central conclusion has never been truer: substance always beats image.
It was a timely discovery, coinciding as it does with the next evolution of the business I lead. It has reinforced my belief in the enduring power of substance when it is effectively communicated. It has also underlined the rapid transformation of the communications landscape.
The sheer scale of this transformation is perhaps best reflected in the fact that PR, as it is traditionally defined—a world of newsroom ringarounds, lunchtime tête-à-têtes, and the “dark arts”—is dead.
High-speed internet and the ubiquitous smartphone have been the great equalisers, democratising communications in ways that have revolutionised every sector, especially ours.
This democratisation has generated more choice, opinion, and independence. People are unambiguous about what they like and dislike. Authenticity and expertise are expected. Consistency is rewarded. Veneer is quickly exposed, and those behind it wilt fast. Mistakes are magnified, particularly mismanaged ones.
It has also created a new dynamic for those in decision-making roles. “The CEO” can no longer be detached. “The politician” can no longer hide. “The media” no longer has a monopoly on journalistic content. “The consumer” no longer buys dispassionately. “The shareholder” no longer just nods. “The detractor” can no longer be ignored.
Many leaders and organisations haven’t got the memo. Some still believe that top-down autocracy works, that questions won’t be asked, and that people will simply accept and do. Some feel it’s enough to talk about themselves, spending large amounts of money on media platforms, advisers, and arcane metrics that confirm their own biases.
Some feel it’s solely the job of policymakers to come up with solutions. Some—often unwittingly—begin a communications campaign without first truly understanding what matters to those they seek to resonate with. Some think relationships are optional. Some work in silos. Worst of all, some feel that communications doesn’t matter, that it won’t make any difference.
This kind of thinking often reflects a desire for certainty, a frustration with the incessant demands of an always-on world, and a longing for the way things used to be.
When I first started in communications, certainty was achievable. It was possible to own a media narrative for days, to communicate at a time of your choosing alone, and to be accountable to only a very select audience. Those days are gone, never to return.
When we can’t be certain, we can only be authentic. Smart leaders get this.
What sets organisations apart today is their ability to develop communications strategies and cultures that are true to them; in doing so, they achieve their business objectives. That’s authenticity, that’s substance over image.
The tools we have at our disposal to bring these strategies and cultures to life are powerful and adaptive: we can directly engage our target audiences, co-create content with them, and ultimately measure how well our efforts are resonating with those who we want to take notice and act.
It is this changed landscape that we are responding to in the subtle but important decision to change our name from PR360 to 360.
360 is driven by a team of people who share a belief that the businesses, brands, and leaders that achieve lasting success are those that value communications.
Success in today’s arena demands data-driven insights, strategic thinking, and a multidisciplinary mix of services, both classical and modern, fit for a changing and often capricious world. Our best work is in partnership with clients who believe in this.
360 is an acknowledgement and embodiment of that requirement. Integrating every part and process of communications—the insights, strategy, content, execution and measurement—is what we call “intelligent communications”, and it’s the service we provide to our clients.
My 21-year-old self, bound up in the pages of that thesis, would have benefited from understanding the intelligent communications way of thinking. I’m just glad I can now finally put it into words.
About the author
Founder and Managing Director of 360, Dan’s career spans business, politics and professional representation. He has overseen the agency’s rapid growth, developing a premier client portfolio and a talented team of professionals.