I am the male version of Pippi Longstocking
“Technology helps us to communicate in the same ways we have always done as human beings, even in the Stone Age,” says Frank Behrendt in our first #COMRebel interview with an expert from the world of agencies. A change of perspective, in other words, during the examination of corporate communications in the digital age. A discussion about holistic communications work, agile thinking and action, the yearning for social purpose, and the wonderful world of children and Native Americans.
Detecon: Frank, you wear a lot of different hats: communications consultant, book author, journalist, frequently quoted guru of serenity, PR Mind of the Year 2017, Senior Advisor at the Cologne agency Serviceplan, enthusiastic father of a family, and dog whisperer.... Are you perhaps a rebel as well?
Frank Behrendt: Always have been. I was, am, and will always be a rebel.
What do you understand a rebel to be?
A rebel is a person who does things differently and does not blindly follow convention. I believe that I have always been Pippi Longstocking; she was my first female hero and I have always admired her. I have a poster with the German lyrics from Pippi’s song: “I make the world for myself the way I like it.” This is for me a good motto for my life, and that’s why I think I am the male version of Pippi Longstocking.
In our series about #COMRebels, we are talking to our guests about the future of corporate communications in the digital age. You are the first representative from an agency we have welcomed to this discussion, and we are, of course, keenly interested in hearing what you as a consultant advise your clients to take to heart. What position does a communicator of the future need to secure for him- or herself if he or she does not want to fall out of touch?
We consultants are both pilots and forward thinkers. We help our clients to sail through (frequently stormy) digital seas and to reach their destination safely. The very first thing I urge them to do is to be open and to allow things to change. The rebel idea is an excellent fit here because my advice is to question everything and anything that has always been so beautiful. This demands courage and, above all, curiosity. Someone recently asked me whether it was possible to learn to be curious or how you can continue to be curious. I answered that I journey through this world with my eyes open at the side of my curious children and simply observe them. We were all once curious and fearless children, but many of us, regrettably, have lost this openness to the world and settled down in our comfort zones. Dealing positively with the change that is going on in the world – and technology is only one aspect – has a lot to do with curiosity. My advice to my clients is to stay open and be willing to change and learn.
What exactly is changing, and how must we prepare for it?
Corporate communications is in particular an area that is highly relevant for change. So very much is changing. Not only because communications themselves are changing, but also because people are dealing completely differently with communication messages. This means that we must also change. Where do we communicate, when do we communicate, and how do we communicate? Are moving images the right medium, what about short snippets, or is it a message on a social network...? What counts at the end of the day is how I achieve my communications goal, and that is what we talk to our clients about.
We know that the agency business is also going through changes amid the general hurly-burly of transformation, certainly at the latest since the acquisition of Kolle Rebbe by Accenture. Even we, a classic management consultancy, are acquiring more and more mandates relating to communications issues, above all in project and change communications. What do you believe the communications consulting of the future will look like?
It will be a consulting service just as it has always been. But I believe that the boundaries between agencies and corporate consulting will become blurred. Just as consulting companies position themselves in communications topics – whether they acquire an agency for this purpose or simply hire the right people – we agencies naturally now have set up divisions that work in product development and management consulting. Consulting must become an increasingly holistic activity. There will always be acquisitions of this nature, but they are nothing new, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become fearful and frightened because of them. There have always been bidding syndicates comprising advertising agencies, PR agencies, event agencies, and corporate consultancies. Ultimately, the aim is to provide optimal 360° consulting for clients. Whether acquisitions are the path taken or companies found their own agencies, such as we have seen Mercedes doing with Antoni or Thyssen-Krupp with Bobby & Carl – these are all fascinating models. The important point at the end of the day is for consulting services that generate added value to be offered to the client – whatever the constellation may be.
Have people finally understood that we need to extend a hand to one another instead of becoming involved in power-grabbing intrigues behind the scenes and retreating into silos?
Yes and no. At Deutsche Bahn, for instance, Marketing and PR have been merged. I consider this to be a highly sensible as well as a bold step. Agency business today is also much less fragmented than it used to be. Personally, I have never been interested at all in knowing what silo I’m sitting in at the moment. In the past, one person was involved with a media tender, another with a PR or advertising tender – that is less and less often the case today; service for clients is becoming increasingly comprehensive, and boundaries are becoming more and more blurred. I share an office with Esther Busch, for example, the managing director of Mediaplus. We do more than just preach integrated work at Serviceplan – we practice it.
The topic of leadership has undergone a complete change in character in recent years. Many structures no longer make any sense today. When we look at agile working, we see that hierarchical structures are more and more a thing of the past. Instead, the definition of the leader is more and more an issue of project orientation, and when the one project has been completed, the same person takes on a different role. And in really modern structures, the employees select their temporary leaders themselves. It is interesting to see that in many of these companies that are performing agilely women are selected as project managers; they don’t walk into the room with guns blazing, but lead instead with greater empathy, emotion, and cooperation and don’t have one eye fixed on positions and defined areas. Anyone who continues to cling slavishly to hierarchies will one day be swept away in the tidal wave of changes.
You say that clients want to have a convincing total package, regardless of whether it comes from an agency or a consultancy. Isn’t it sometimes true that they purchase people and their qualities without regard for the company that ends up writing the invoice? That is to say that the client simply wants Frank Behrendt, no matter who he is working for and who he brings along with him, because they know that he will get the job done.
Sure! As far as I am concerned personally, that has always been the case, of course. (laughs)
But you can’t generalize about this. There are cases when the services of strong consultant personalities are purchased, regardless of who their current employers are, because customer relationships that have developed over time always function regardless of what it says on the business card, simply on the level of personal trust. But in the same way, there is trust in the brand name of the sender. There are some consultancy brand names who have the nimbus of offering greater competence than can be found anywhere else. When you engage them, you have the expectation that they will provide genius minds in their fields. When this all comes together – the top consultancy brand name with a good back office AND a top consultant whom you have trusted for years, then you can’t lose.
But we must not forget that not all decisions are made by the people in the business departments; often enough, the purchasing clerks are the ones who decide. And in that case, completely different criteria such as expertise, pricing, or credentials become relevant. No one disputes, however, that the human components, i.e., the personal branding and the charisma as well as the consultant’s personality, play a major role alongside his or her competence. The more digitalized the world becomes, the more profiling of personality becomes a topic. Everything that can be standardized and mechanized is interchangeable, as a rule. At the end of the day, people are the icing on the cake and represent the added value. They draw the right conclusions, have honest opinions, are also willing on occasion to strike out on completely new paths that are not generated in this way by Watson & Co. Rebels, to put it simply.
Speaking about human charisma ... You once said: “My strategy is that I am the way I am – both in my analog and my digital life.” Why are authenticity, credibility, and social purpose becoming more and more important?
Because the interchangeability arising from mechanization is producing so much more sameness. The differentiation characteristic in a more technical, digitalized world can only be something that purpose promises to deliver. Technology alone is not that certain something in either a car or a computer. The purpose behind Apple has a major impact on sales success, not the last megapixel in the iPhone camera. Everything in the technical or data area is relatively equal. The shining consultant with purpose is the one who adds the final magic touch. So personal branding is gaining in attraction and relevance for both trademarks and for people.
Are readers able to determine at all whether the CEO him- or herself has posted the message or has delegated it to the editorial staff?
Some smart CEOs use their initials when they post personal contents. We know, after all, that a CEO has too many other obligations and cannot possibly write everything him- or herself. When Tim Höttges from Deutsche Telekom produces a video in a bakery, then he himself is standing there without any deception, not his avatar. Anyone who is even halfway aware of what goes on in the world knows that influencers must identify advertising appropriately. My children know exactly that certain contents are posted with purely commercial intentions and not because the products are such a hit. Even when it comes to testimonials, no one is so naive as to believe that Thomas Gottschalk does the Haribo advertising for free. The increasing transparency ensures that these topics are being discussed. When you pay attention, you notice that the department uses a different “speak” than the CEO. People with the right training also recognize this in the wording or the tonality or when the CEO has a certain recognition value that cannot easily be imitated. Whenever the team tweets something, however, it will, as a rule, not be anything the boss doesn’t like; it comes from a cosmos that has previously been defined and coordinated in its contents by joint effort. Even corporate communicators rarely post their personal opinions; their messages are in line with the tonality and attitudes of the company.
To what extent do agility and communications go together?
Agility existed long before digitalization, and it has always been an important and positive human trait. A person who is agile is always on the go, is chomping at the bit, open and always prepared. And that is better, especially in these increasingly transient times, than being fastened down in an armchair. Agility is an excellent match with our atavistic human spontaneity. When someone with whom you are in direct contact wishes you a good day, you do not first consider what you should say; your response is completely automatic and spontaneous. Spontaneity is a very human characteristic. You also do not need three weeks of in-depth thought to decide whether you think another person is likable. That is why digital dating services, whether they are called Parship or Tinder, work so well. When you are sitting in a bar, you decide relatively immediately whether a man or a woman is on the same wavelength with you. Not everyone has as much time as the “Bachelor”, who can spend 24 hours a day for a number of weeks checking out in detail umpteen women for their qualities; most of the time, we make a quick decision. Agility in corporate communications is consequently a prophecy that has come to pass late about a deeply ingrained human way to communicate. Technology helps us to carry out our communication the way people have always done, even in the Stone Age. Fast and direct – but with a much greater reach than in face-to-face.
Must communicators be careful because the content of their work is becoming automated to such a degree that their jobs will become superfluous? How must they prepare themselves?
Digitalization and agility have inherent risks; vulnerability to mistakes grows along with speed. If we had all the time in the world, content would pass over a number of desks, would be checked and approved by the legal experts, and then questioned three more times. The Communicator 4.0 must be someone who can analyze things extremely well and extremely fast. We all bemoan the deterioration of our language – and not only in Pisa studies. Yet it has become even more important to be able to use language well because today we can say so much more and have a much greater impact, including causing much greater harm, with texts that are much shorter. Not only by using 280 characters on Twitter. A simple headline or seemingly banal statement can ignite a firestorm. That is why we must be much more sensitive to the wording of our texts and need additional competence in the quality of our formulations. Considering the speed and agility in communications today, communicators do not always have a safety parachute at hand in that they can have their texts checked over and over again by five speech writers. Every word that someone utters is disseminated immediately; what the executive officer says on a stage is tweeted immediately by journalists or even by his or her own employees. So you must be attentive and fast and able to assess things correctly. And understand the technology that can help you with this. Certainly, various tasks in communications will in future no longer be handled by people, but communicators as communications strategists, emotional leaders, and the visible face of a company will definitely not become superfluous.
Sometimes a single word can launch a career or lead to great harm. What must I do so that I don’t damage my personal branding?
There are plenty of faux pas, not only in personal branding. None of us are free of mistakes, everyone makes them – all the time. Even though I can immediately erase digital content, it has been released into the world. The important thing here: If I have made a mess of something, I should simply have the good grace to apologize. There is still plenty of room for development when it comes to an open and honest culture of mistakes in our part of the world. In other countries, valued employees are often people who have failed with their startup. As a rule, it is unlikely that this will happen to them again because they learned something from their failure. Certainly, the role of an approachable “social CEO” offers many opportunities, but because of the special nature of a platform, it also entails a lot of risks. Christian Lindner has said that a politician must go where it hurts, even as a democrat. Of course it is not a pleasant experience when people rake you over the coals on Twitter and verbally air their grievances inappropriately. Sometimes you can’t block people as fast as they dump loads of garbage over your head. But that can happen to you at the market square just as easily if someone who is upset starts throwing tomatoes at you. You can also get mixed up about your facts during a TV or newspaper interview, and you have to correct yourself later. Or a thoughtless comment slips out during a conference, and you become the target of massive criticism. It is simply a different kind of public arena that I enter today. The consequences come faster and are often more dramatic. Still, a mistake is a mistake, and you should try to correct it as soon as possible and apologize. Many do not dare to do this, although it is a highly admirable thing to do. We see over and over again that companies or individuals gain credibility by doing so. As a communications consultant, I repeatedly advise this: Put everything on the table, be honest, admit mistakes, promise to do better, and then document how you will do it. But staying silent and sweeping mistakes under the rug generally backfire.
So we all need a better culture of mistakes, but surely as well a stronger culture of trust. It is said that the direct access to the public via digital media today turns every employee into a part of corporate communications. Will employees not at some point become the better communicators?
The days of the communications police are certainly long gone. We used to have our good friend, the press secretary, who communicated everything from a central point. No one else said anything because they were not allowed to. Fortunately, this is different in most cases today. Even DAX corporations such as Deutsche Telekom support a decentralized communications approach in which employees are also communicators and ultimately can interact and be credible to the benefit of the company. Naturally, they can also make mistakes in the heat of the moment. But this must be tolerated. The executive suites show their trust in their employees, and if something happens, everyone has to talk about it and learn from the experience. A good chief always stands at the forefront to protect the tribe. There are many who did not do that, of course. But I do not regard these people as strong leaders.
Frank, we want to thank you for this honest and refreshingly open interview, but we are not going to let you go without asking you our obligatory closing question: What are the two apps that you absolutely must have for your daily work, and why?
Two are not enough for me; I’m a fan of diversity. I always find media apps interesting. For example, bild.de. I use it to find out what is happening in the Jungle, with Bachelor, and what is otherwise going on in the rest of the world. Since I once worked for Bild myself, there is also a certain romanticism involved in this. Otherwise, however, I also look at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the FAZ, Spiegel, and Stern online. But before I dive into the media apps every morning, I surf through the news feeds of my social channels. This is where bloggers, influencers, companies, institutions, and normal people can be found. At the end of the day, I need the buzz I have configured for myself. The people I follow are personalities who have an opinion. Of course, some of them are my clients and the topics that concern them. By the way, the best ice-breaker when speaking to a client is not to start with the business topic, but to ask: “What do you think about the break-up of Helene Fischer and Florian Silbereisen?” (laughs)
So I go to Twitter, then LinkedIn, and then to Instagram. On Twitter, you see “What’s hot?” At LinkedIn, you can find an interesting item that will push you to think some more about a business topic while you are having your morning coffee. And I pick up a big helping of inspiration early in the morning from Instagram, the primarily visual channel. Maybe that is why I am never in a bad mood. I am a great fan of VISUAL STATEMENTS – a cool company in the digital age. Even as a student, the company’s founder Benedikt Böckenförde posted beautiful pictures with fantastic messages; for me, his channel is a Poetry Album 4.0. In the meantime, even some of my statements have been picked up and shared. My eldest daughter, Emily, said about this: “Hey, Papa, now you are bringing enlightenment to millennials!”
A communicator should find the right mix of soaking up contents, but not ignore the emotional component. You can then build an entire cosmos for yourself that offers you maximum support for your work and, above all, daily inspiration.
In the age of digital change, corporate communication is no longer what it used to be, either: familiar ways of disseminating information are becoming less important, smooth corporate news can no longer get through, and the 'everyone with everyone dialogue via social media and communities is causing traditional communication teams to lose control over the dissemination of the message. On the other hand, chatbots and artificial intelligence provide completely new access to the needs of customers, employees and applicants, but they also bring about fundamental technical and cultural changes. Long live #FutureCOM.
Beautiful new world of unlimited possibilities?
What does it look like now, the (digitized) corporate communication of the future? How, where and by whom will the exchange of information take place? And how do we shape the interaction between man and machine?
We are looking for answers...
... and talk to the #COMRebels, the courageous, young, wild, digital and experimental representatives of a species whose work plays a key role in transforming your business into a successful player in the digital age.