GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter recently interviewed Claire Dixon, Vice President of Global Corporate Communications at eBay Inc, to gain insight on the value of stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world. Dixon leads proactive and reactive communications strategy across a range of disciplines including media relations, external stakeholder engagement, digital and social media strategy, content, employee engagement and social innovation (CR) for eBay Inc. A native Londoner, prior to joining eBay, Claire held a variety of UK, European and Global roles for GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever.
Here are her thoughts:
From your perspective, has the world become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? That is, become more of a VUCA world?
I would argue the world has always been volatile and uncertain but it is our awareness that has been heightened by burgeoning access to information and data meaning we can now quantify change so much more readily.
Also, the pace of technological change is really extraordinary – and set to intensify. It was only a few years ago that the iPhone came out and today it is impossible for many to contemplate life without a smartphone, given all the opportunities it creates from communications to information to commerce. It’s an exciting and pivotal time to be in business in Silicon Valley.
Let’s talk about the business world and your specific role in corporate communications. Within this changing context, what are the implications for the corporate communications function?
I would characterize it as the democratization of communications. The communications world is grappling with a shifting reputation landscape, where now anyone has the ability to positively or negatively impact your reputation. Yes, your CEO’s voice is still important, but a detractor with a good following on social can become as influential overnight. A local issue can become a global Internet meme in a matter of minutes.
This is not an age for control freaks. Historically, corporate communications was about trying to control the message. Today’s model is all about engagement: how can we help shape the conversation by listening alike to detractors and fans and helping them understand the company better.
In the old model, you met your stakeholders behind closed doors, and frankly not that often. Today conversations play out in real time and increasingly companies see the need to engage with stakeholders at scale, in a more transparent way and on an ongoing basis. When issues and expectations are met head on with open and honest dialogue, both company and stakeholders benefit. Given the explosion of social media and technology, it’s never been harder to keep a secret. Think about Sony or Snowden – in both cases it was technology that enabled those stories to be shared, willingly or unwillingly.
Where are we on this shift from a traditional approach to communications to an approach based on engagement?
It’s a continuum. Many are still doing press releases but they are fading fast in favor of owned and social channels, but the ‘so what’ needs to be clear. Enabling and responding to comments and feedback is also important.
So, context matters when it comes to engagement?
Yes, it is critical. The corporate world is complex but we need to recognize that not many have the time or inclination to read a lengthy report on an issue. It is our job to distill important ideas to meaningful, easily digested chunks. Communicators are getting better at it, and impactful infographics and video have been a great step forward. Simplified messaging can help focus on essentials and being more human. But the risk is you can end up with a lowest common denominator approach that misses essential nuance or complexity which can lead to misinterpretation.
This is a central challenge of managing communications where anyone with a powerful voice and good access to social media can promulgate a particular view, regardless of whether their facts are right.
Internal stakeholder management is also vital. We need to help our teams identify noise in the system. A few people being vocal on an executive’s Twitter feed can feel very loud in a company, and our job is to work out the signal from the noise. Are these tweets representative of broader stakeholder and consumer views, or a small number of people shouting loudly? It is so important to call that right before taking action.
What is the best way to tease out the signal from the noise?
There is no question that having the right digital listening tools to assess and track what is being said about you on the Internet is an important element, but you need to marry this with opinions from real stakeholders. Online listening is not a substitute for direct engagement with stakeholders.
You also need to trust your gut. I think it is an underappreciated quality. This is part judgment and part experience. You may only have a few minutes to judge something, respond and react to it. By the time you have all the data in, it may be too late and the damage is done. So your instincts, built upon experience, are crucial.
In this fast paced environment, what is the role of corporate values and purpose?
I have been fortunate to work for companies like Unilever, GSK and now eBay that have all had a strong corporate purpose. Doing the right thing has to be at the heart of what I do. I believe that having a strong understanding of your company’s culture, corporate values and corporate purpose helps drive good decision-making. When values and purpose are clear and everyone understands them, gray areas fade away and previously challenging decisions become much simpler. But purpose has to be authentic. It can’t be an add on. Yes, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are important, but it is the ‘why’ you need to start with.
One of the great things about eBay is that our purpose is in our lifeblood – to create economic opportunities for people through technology. Pierre Omidyar, the company founder, believes that people are essentially good. Arguably one of the first social networks, he put human connection at the center of eBay to create a marketplace built on trust where anyone regardless of their background, location or skillset had equal access to buy, sell and give. And from that opportunity good things would flow. A simple but powerful and purposeful idea.
Why does ‘opportunity economy’ matter?
It matters tremendously. To be able to create opportunity where there was none. To be able to give people the chance to meet, to exchange and create value – is quite extraordinary.
Individuals can create new income streams, run a business from their home, employ others and connect and sell to people around the world. We also saw well over $5bn generated for charities through eBay Inc. giving programs and platforms in 2014. This is a real shared value business: we don’t sell anything ourselves, we only make money by enabling others to succeed on our platforms. We partner not compete. Through the power of the eBay platforms, we are breaking down barriers, increasing participants and connecting people to new opportunities.
I am still in awe of what this business has enabled for so many millions around the world for nearly two decades now. And I’m excited to see what the next decade will hold.
Editor’s Note: This interview appeared originally on GlobeScan.com.