At the 11th Global Communication Conclave organized by the Public Relations Council of India, I had the opportunity to join a panel discussion on disruption related to the recent demonetization drive in India.
A topic that caught the imagination of the country and resulted in numerous points and counterpoints about the move in itself, the debate however covered the communication dimension and what worked and if there were better ways to deliver change. While my esteemed panelists spoke of the impact on society and the role of leaders and institutions I focused on the lessons from this communication exercise.
A disclaimer: I do not have any political affiliations or leanings and am a supporter of anyone who has positive intent to serve society. The views in this article are personal and restricted to communication, a function I learn, teach and practice.
Here are lessons that I am hoping one can apply to any change communication program.
Defining: Attempting a change as large and influential as this had to be daring in its approach. Launching it with a mass media communication from the country’s Prime Minister addressing all citizens helped to get the message across. The Prime Minister’s savviness with using social media (he is among the most widely followed global leaders) also helped immensely to reach the message far and wide. A top-down leadership led engagement works best for change that is far-reaching and widespread.
Dexterity: Keeping a large countrywide change communication under wraps except among key stakeholders helped to maximize the surprise element for those this move was aimed at. Clarifying the intent of the change (impacting black money hoarders and entities who are perpetuating terror) the consistent messages helped citizens understand the meaning of this change. With multiple parties involved in ensuring the change is done systematically and across the nation, the plan and strategy were chalked out months ago. The printing presses, the government bodies or the banks – everyone had a role to play. However, the dexterity with how the communication was done is a lesson for change communicators.
Decision-making: A few countries have attempted demonetization and haven’t been able to land change or completely engage their citizens. Knowing that to take the country to the next level, influence its mindset, get people to adopt digital needed a commitment far greater than an incremental push towards digitalization. Having a few leaders articulate the rationale behind these decisions and building advocates of the decision to share perspectives regularly helped move citizens forward.
Dialogue: Connecting the dots of this change to promises made to transform the nation ensured the communication provided context. It also worked when the communication clearly highlighted that the change would take time and sought support from citizens to partner in the journey. Using radio, social media, print, and television the coverage was widespread. This, unfortunately, wasn’t a decision that could have been discussed and debated before implementing. Staying flexible and listening to feedback from citizens enabled decision makers to tweak their communication and plans as they progressed.
Dominating: Since the change was transforming the ways of working of people also means the communication needed to keep this topic on peoples’ minds. Keeping a constant drumbeat of updates from the government (withdrawal limits, dates for submitting old currencies, policy impact, exchanging notes etc) kept the momentum on with this change. Calling out that this change was just the beginning also meant that citizens were given notice that more such disruptions were on the anvil.
Were there opportunities to do this change communication better?
Having more leaders embracing the message, getting those early adopters of digitalization to speak on behalf of the campaign and continually sharing how the funds absorbed or deposited were transparently getting utilized for the benefit of the nation would have been received well.
Dispelling myths about the move could have helped immensely in a world where fake news is getting more attention than ‘real’ news. Finally, recognizing and thanking citizens for partnering in this journey may have reduced the pain many faced while this change landed.
All in all, there are several important lessons for corporate communicators about driving change from this exercise. What did you think?