Toby Doman 12 Apr 2023 // 7:02AM GMT
It was officially adopted by the World Economic Forum at Davos this year and made appearances in leading international media outlets such as the Financial Times. It’s a term that epitomises the perception that events in the world are just happening faster. The term ‘polycrisis’ is having something of a moment.
It’s a phrase coined by economic historian, Adam Tooze and it’s a concept that is grabbing the attention of business leaders looking ahead to where the next global shock is coming from. But what does it mean? Tooze told TIME magazine that “it’s like a bad breakfast buffet. The thing about it is that it’s an indigestible mixture of ingredients that do not normally go together in a constellation of forces.”
For crisis and issues communications specialists, the notion that we are entering a series of interlinked global shocks could be exciting. For others within the communications profession, it signals a potential step-change in the way corporate affairs strategies will need to be developed.
After the pandemic, sclerosis in global supply chains combined with an energy market fallout after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These overlapping challenges caught central banks – already battling with a sharp end to historic low interest rates – on the back foot. For all the benefits of a globalised, interlinked world, that system is also able to translate multiple shocks across the world along the same frameworks that drive international business.
Alarm – particularly in European boardrooms – has been raised during the winter crisis. Over reliance on Russian energy and continued focus on autocratic end-markets such as China have forced a reckoning. The old rules might not apply so much anymore.
The broader question for communicators to consider is: how is this new reality shaping the information space? Technology has been accelerating news cycles for years. State media arms play an important role in amplifying, refracting and generating sympathetic stories, rumours and theories useful in hybrid conflict scenarios.
The political risk environment is becoming more complex and decision making processes are also being accelerated, to match the speed of news cycles and polycrises.
All of this turbulence presents challenges to communications professionals and the advice they provide clients, executives and other stakeholders.
In this new environment, communicators will need to:
Become even more adept at looking around corners
Ensure that historical context or historical understanding of an issue is embedded into decision making – knowing your history can also help to anticipate how a crisis or issue might develop
Broaden listening and monitoring beyond media sources
Consult locally – having trusted, on-the-ground information sources, teams or networks can help you quickly understand how serious an issue genuinely is – all politics is local. It’s a phrase that dates back to the 1930s but still holds true today.
Be cautious about navigating this turbulence. As we transition from a bi-polar to a multi-polar world, the potential for friction increases. However, the situation opens up new opportunities to shape and develop stories sensitively.
Professional communicators often advise on the importance of ‘controlling the narrative.’ Unfortunately, this is far more challenging when it comes to geopolitical issues. Career diplomat and former deputy-director for policy planning at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Braz Baracuhy told the World Economic Forum of these difficulties. “Companies cannot control geopolitics or play the geopolitical great game as a political actor. Companies are actually ill-equipped for playing that game and they will eventually lose.”
It is not just macro-geopolitical issues that are re-shaping communications needs, but interlinked technologies too. A Weber Shandwick study revealed that disinformation scored highly as a geopolitical concern for multinationals. We only have to consider the recent news cycle linked to the (fake) papal puffer jacket to demonstrate the ability of AI to rapidly create and then spread an untruth. In this case it was lighthearted, but as Paul J. Davies and Parmy Olsen wrote for Bloomberg, “imagine a deepfake video of a widely recognised central banker or bank executive, such as the Fed’s Powell or JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon, saying something plausible but troubling about a major lender. A digital bank run is a whole lot harder to stop than to start.”
An organisation’s reputation is no longer just threatened by potential human action, the robots are now involved as well.
Whether it’s a polycrisis or an AI driven deepfake, the golden thread linking all of the present challenges to comms professionals is geopolitical. The ‘Great Game’ was a period of intense 19th century strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires. The phrase has resurfaced as a way to reference our current shift to a more multi-polar world. At first glance, the friction and tension caused by this shift could drive more crises for communicators to manage, however, with the right training, foresight and patience it could also herald a golden age in terms of the importance of communications as a profession.
Toby Doman is group head of communications at Home Credit and a board member at APACD.