If there is one thing guaranteed to keep Corporate Affairs Directors awake at night, it is the threat of public anger and the disruption it brings with it. With that in mind, 2015 was an angry year. Public anger drove the success of political insurgents, it toppled the leaders of FIFA and saw Greece come within a hair’s breadth of expulsion from the Eurozone. On the flip side, popular frustration helped force through a tentative deal at the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris and, eventually, jolted European leaders into a coordinated response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Anger and frustration are nothing new when it comes to public debate, but their potential to seriously impede organisations’ capacity to operate is greater today than ever before. Driving much of this is a revolution in the way in which we communicate with one another. Whereas, historically, public anger could be contained or ignored, today, digital platforms serve to amplify even comparatively minor grievances and propel them to the forefront of public debate. Meanwhile, parochial concerns can now be converted into rallying cries, pulling together disparate groups into national or even global movements; something demonstrated by both the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter.
All of this throws up obvious questions. What is the point? Why should those traditionally outside of the political sphere even attempt to engage with public debate? Wouldn’t it be easier to maintain a low profile and minimise the risk of attracting public ire? The merits and drawbacks of engaging with public debate are well rehearsed, but it is a largely academic question. Ultimately, popular expectations today demand that any organisation pair operational excellence with a clear civic mission. Confronting popular anger and frustration is an inevitable part of this.
If anger characterised much of 2015, there is no reason to believe that 2016 will be any different. Increased economic insecurity, a backlash against established institutions and the decline of traditional media will all continue to drive popular disquiet and frustration. Meanwhile, new media will continue to amplify and broadcast this. Daniel Moynihan once said that: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Today, against a backdrop of economic, social and political insecurity and with the internet providing apparently authoritative information to suit all tastes and reinforce any prejudice, this is no longer true. This presents an acute challenge for anyone wishing to lead public discourse.
On the face of it, all of this is a forbidding prospect, and yet the disruption promised by the insurgents, campaigners and protest movements continues to fall short of what many have feared. Despite the obvious dissatisfaction with established institutions, the majority have endured. Outside of Greece, insurgents have spectacularly failed to storm the seats of political power. Elsewhere, the likes of Google have demonstrated an impressive capacity to bounce back from reputational imbroglios. Meanwhile, the transformation in how we engage with one another also presents new and effective tools for shaping public debate. All of this underscores the risk in today’s world of confusing heat with light and the views of the vocal minority with less vociferous mainstream opinion. The challenge for those seeking to drive debate and to engender public trust is to recognise this distinction.
By any number of metrics, 2016 will be a better year than 2015. The world will be a healthier, wealthier and more peaceful – seriously! – place in twelve months’ time than it is today. Nevertheless, this will not prevent public debate from being increasingly contested and, at times, acrimonious. Technological and demographic change is almost always accompanied by social upheaval, presenting an ideal environment for populism and grievance. But those seeking to inform and drive debate can’t afford to be discouraged by this. Instead, the success of their efforts will depend on adopting an intelligent and mature approach to engagement and demonstrating a willingness to engage with contentious and controversial issues. Indeed, their contribution to these is more vital today than ever.