Australia is poor at converting innovation into commercial success. A fundamental reason is a mistrust in business. Here are four universal ways to embrace PR skills and earn trust in business in the Social Age – writes Scott Guthrie
Australia ranks number 17 in the Global Innovation Index – up two places on the last survey.
Heady days. Time to sit back, relax and enjoy the surf, then. Well, not exactly. Not when you look under the bonnet at some of the 81 variables used to create the Innovation Index. Doing this shows Australia is struggling to convert innovation inputs into outputs ranking 81 globally in its innovation efficiency ratio.
Is this a blip? What does the future hold? Australia ranks 73 in terms of producing university graduates with science or engineering backgrounds. The sun-kissed nation has no systemic approach which co-ordinates the activities of universities, researchers, and industry.
Why should Australia care?
Why should Australians care about a focus on innovation? After all we’re currently enjoying our 24th year of uninterrupted economic growth.
John Naisbitt answers this question in his international bestseller, Megatrends:
“The two most important things to remember about world economics are that yesterday is over and that we must now adjust to living in a world of interdependent communities.”
We are all part of a hyperconnected, hyperlocal global economy. “No longer do we have the luxury of operating within an isolated, self-sufficient national economic system; we now must acknowledge that we are part of a global economy.” writes Naisbitt. Trouble is Naisbitt published these words over thirty years ago and now sounds Cassandra like.
So, whilst Australia has enjoyed a long run exporting its mineral wealth, riding the wave of a mining boom, to resource-hungry nations like China, in other sectors we’ve allowed ourselves to take the foot off the accelerator. We’ve become a little bit complacent. A little bit self-satisfied. This is prime setting for disruptors to step on our turf.
“Australian companies are in danger of being pushed aside by innovative competitors from at home and abroad unless they move more quickly to catch up with the digital revolution.” Australian chief executive of Boston Consulting Group, Andrew Clark told the Australian Financial Review.
The financial services sector may be a prime disruption target. Here in Australia, the Big Four banks have done so well they now account for four of the five biggest companies in Australia. This marks out the financial services sector as being very appetising to competitors. But, I’m not convinced the next big disruptor will be someone from the same sector.
Disruption is just as likely to come from global players in a seemingly unrelated industry. Companies like Amazon, Google and Apple consistently excel in customer experience, user experience, and the ability to gain meaningful, profitable, insight from big data. But in order for these companies to keep growing dramatically they need to move into new market segments. Australia’s financial services sector might fit the bill nicely for potential mass sales.
Australia is a nuanced landscape. Essentially a western, developed economy set within the geographical context of the developing Asian economy. As such, in its relations with China, never before has Australia had such a large trading partner with such different cultural and political values.
Australia’s traditional trading partners of the UK, Europe and North America have suffered recession – even depression – over the last seven or so years. Australia’s new economic allies have not. They are determined to continue to grow through innovation. China, Indonesia and Vietnam take three of the top five spots in the innovation efficiency ratio.
Australia needs to catch up to this revolution marked by the Social Age or risk losing out to international competitors. We need to change the fundamentals of business to, not only accept change, but to embrace it. We need to create a dedication to digital strategy. To invest in technology and to shift organisational culture from command-and-control hierarchical bureaucracy towards flatter, leaner matrix organisations.
If Australians don’t confront the future by addressing the present settings in the local and global economies, the future we hand our children could be marked by lower living standards compared with today’s. In short, if Australia can’t take some tough decisions the rest of the world will make these decisions for it.
Problem? What problem?
Nearing a quarter century of unbroken economic growth it’s easy to understand why many Australian’s live by the line: If it ain’t broke why fix it. Especially with another well-worn phrase in mind: change happens on as the result of insurmountable market pressure.
Results in the annual trust barometer survey from global PR firm, Edelman, show that the pace of development and change in business and industry in Australia is felt to be too fast. And undertaken for the wrong reasons.
Less than one-in-five (19%) respondents to Edelman’s study perceive the drivers for change in business and industry today are to improve people’s lives. Just 14% think it’s to make the world a better place. Whilst 72% think business change is about greed and money.
How to fix it
So, how does Australian business build successful innovation and change?
Australians are calling out business. Consumers have realised that businesses will always fail to earn trust if they’re constantly seen to be exploiting their customers and under appreciating their employees. Today’s consumers and employees are connected and empowered.
Here are four ways that business can earn trust using public relations skills:
Profit optimisation is fine. Profit maximisation isn’t.
Profit optimisation is fine. Profit maximisation isn’t. Turning a Nelsonian eye to everything apart from making money is no longer acceptable. Or viable.
Of course every business is ultimately in the business of staying in business. This involves creating sustained profit. But generating profit over the long-term requires loyalty from employees, building mutually beneficial relationships with suppliers and customers and nurturing support from the general community. These are bedrock PR skills.
Listen, pre-empt, communicate
Business needs to actively listen to the people around and within it. Its customers, its employees, society at large as well as its shareholders. Active listening means accepting feedback and responding quickly and honestly when there’s reason to.
The social web allows, even demands, direct communication. So ditch the corporate speak and communicate directly with a human voice. Not through unions, or consumer groups or associations. And interact often. But in a meaningful way. Not by imploring us to follow or like you. But by answering our questions. By solving our problems.
Building purpose and principle within business
A firm’s values go beyond their statements of mission and vision. Values and principles shouldn’t be instruments of external image management. Rather they are ethical commitments to different stakeholder interests. Modern PR helps firms lift these promises off the ‘About Us’ section of the corporate website and bed them down as part of the firm’s DNA. Over time these principles become the base upon which the decisions and actions of employees are made.
Public relations professionals should help organisational leaders articulate what the company stands for and how it can live up to what it says it is. In other words public relations professionals should play a major part in developing the organisation’s corporate values and ethics from which positive action is driven.
Transparent and open business practices
Being authentic means being the same on the inside as you say you are on the outside. It’s about transparency, truthfulness and being genuine. Brands who fail ‘walk the talk’ will find their customers (and other important stakeholders) spotting the ‘legitimacy gap’, calling bullshit and voting with their feet. It won’t be a solitary walk either.
Today we’re all connected and empowered. The social web has enabled this. We talk to each other. The social web amplifies our words. Our praise as well as our scorn. And when we talk people like us have more authority than journalists, the government or brands. People like us listen to people like us – our friends, our colleagues, our family.