10 imminent changes and challenges for communicators to anticipate

To stay relevant, prepare your company or client for the new era of cyber breaches, risk management, and bold political stands.

9 comms challenges

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order,” the late futurist Alvin Toffler once wrote.

Mr. Toffler’s prophecy continues to vex corporations battling to manage risk and compete in today’s hyper-charged marketplace. What will the communications challenges of 2020 and beyond bring? No doubt there will be some surprises, but I’m willing to bet my old copy of Mr. Toffler’s “Future Shock” that a lot of general counsels and communications EVPs will be grappling with the following: Precedent-shattering cyber breaches and other cybersecurity calamities will not only jeopardize your bottom line, but threaten to permanently damage your brand.

1. Cyber breaches have increased 54% over the pace of a year ago. If your organization hasn’t yet been hacked, it will be, if not in 2020, then soon. Plan on it. Soon, free credit reporting will no longer be ameliorative. Customers are going to demand more, putting far more attention on what your company did to prevent the breach.

2. Radical revisions to enterprise risk management (ERM) will become imperative as corporate challenges — from global warming and the sugar industry to #MeToo and cocoa farming — come from the grassroots, not from shareholders or institutional investors. If you haven’t rebuilt your ERM based on this, then you are looking in the rearview mirror, not to mention subjecting yourself to activists’ investors, who will soon argue that the failure to do this is malpractice.

3. The number of companies being targeted by grassroots mobilizers has skyrocketed. Issues and movements now emanate from the ground up, not from the top down. Do you track the fundraising letters of NGOs who cover your industry? Do you know the high-authority bloggers or other social commentators that criticize your company or industry? If you can’t identify these sources, you cannot measure risk and reward.

4. There will be a public relations backlash to the #MeToo movement. Meritorious #MeToo litigation will proceed apace, but men will also file litigation over a perceived absence of equity. LGBTQ employees will be filing more charges against executives for bias. Companies will find that they are in a compromised position in what previously appeared equitable. Now is the time to review your policies and procedures so they are fair for all parties.

5. Litigation funding will continue its rapid growth, providing more funds for the defense while also equalizing the playing field for the plaintiffs’ bar. The age-old strategy of papering a plaintiff to death is an increasingly expensive and fruitless approach when plaintiffs have access to large amounts of liquid capital.

6. A new generation will expect companies to stand for something political, with an assertive environmental, social and corporate governance footprint, beyond the brand. This is an extraordinary change, when, for the past 70 years, companies were expected to be apolitical. For companies to navigate this new expectation, they must understand the rules, which include being transparent, consistent, selective and truthful.

7. The Department of Justice will crack down on perceived abuses of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), including going after foreign communications and public affairs firms, even though they are specifically not written into this pre-World War II statute. Our interpretation is that new FARA senior enforcement director and Mueller investigation veteran Brandon Van Grack is using this statute to crack down on Russian election interference via social media. Don’t be caught up in the dragnet as an experimental case on how far he can use the long arm of this statute. Paul Manafort is serving jail time for violating FARA rules.

8. The criminalization of the boardroom will continue, meaning that your CEO, senior executives and board members will be subject to legal scrutiny, quite possibly changing everything from brand value to succession. Many of today’s convictions, settlements and investigations would have been unimaginable a few short years ago.

9. New unions will take two forms: First, traditional unions are targeting Big Tech, while companies like Google and Facebook fumble their once-esteemed brand positions. Second are the nonunion “wildcat actions,” those spontaneous employee organizing efforts that lead to walkouts and company embarrassment. Google, Disney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Delta represent only a handful of the companies grappling with First-Amendment-in-the-workplace issues.

10. Faith in democracy will decline further. Today, in virtually every democracy, including the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, our children are two-thirds less likely than our parents to believe in democracy as essential. This will have a profound effect on outreach toward millennial consumers and workers moving forward.

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction,” Mr. Toffler once opined. That’s not a bad sentiment to scribble on the whiteboard as you size up your communications challenges for the rest of 2020.

Richard Levick is chairman and CEO of Levick. Read more comms, PR and legal expertise here.

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