illustration by NET Engineering - original images from freepik.com
Constructing communicationStrategies for the relaunch after the emergency
In a scenario of complete stoppage caused by the worldwide Covid-19 emergency, the ability to master information technologies, and especially remote communication tools will play a key role in view of the relaunch of the main economic sectors. The increasingly widespread recourse to ‘smart working’ methods in the field of design should certainly be accompanied by the ability to set up and maintain clear and effective information flows, contributing to create and spread the best operating practices. However, knowing how to ‘construct’ effective communication with your contacts is not an aptitude that can be taken, particularly in the AEC sector.
We talked about this to Fabrizio Apostolo, Editorial Director of ‘leStrade’ magazine, one of the greatest experts on sector communication in the infrastructure field.
In recent months, we’ve been able to appreciate the values, but also the limits, of the new media, especially the social tools, as never before. On one hand, they’re an agile, widespread tool for transmitting news and information in real time, the Prime Minister’s press conference relaunched on Facebook, for example, yet on the other, they don’t offer any guarantee on monitoring the reliability and authority of the shared content. Increasingly, this exposes them to the risk of conveying incomplete, incorrect or purposely distorted information. Do you think that there can be a strategy or operational measures to manage these aspects? And how do you see the role of social networks in institutional or technical/scientific communication?
The means is not just the message, as McLuhan said, but much more, especially in publishing. First of all, there’s the target, and then there’s the form and the content. Then there’s, or rather, there should be culture, from both sides of the ‘transmission’. This isn’t a new scheme but it was consolidated with the spread of mass communication means at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries. It was the time of printed photography, the first cinema and, coincidentally, motorisation. It was also the time when communicator and reader/spectator drew closer and closer, as the boom in illustrated, captivating magazines, which includes the magazine (leStrade, established in 1898) I’m concerned with, showed. Leafing through the first years (see Biblioteca Digitale Lombarda – Lombardy Digital Library), I’m struck by its substantial and formal rigour. It’s a lesson which we should bear in mind, even now, in a very different context from the tools point of view, but not so different if we consider the fundamentals. In communication in general, and technical communication in particular, we should cultivate rigour, respect, ethics and measure. And above all culture. Even using the social networks, which I can’t see as plains of quality but treasure chests of quality and updating (I’m talking about LinkedIn in particular), to manage taking great care of the details. However, for technical investigation, I’d like to stress the crucial role of paper, as long as it’s intelligently ‘federated’, as it were, with social networks and the web.
F: How has the world of sector communication changed following lockdown? How are the main players dealing with the restart and what tools will they be able to field to take care of, for example, the cancellation (necessary but an ill-omen) of all the large events and sector fairs?
FA: I’ve seen two phenomena with lockdown, one negative and the other positive. Under the first, I include a rather haphazard communication proliferation, not managed with that attention to detail I talked about just now, and based rather too much on ‘copy and paste’ mechanisms, accompanied by a narcissistic use of social networks by individual users. Naturally, this doesn’t bring analysis but superficiality. For example, how can you say that concrete is a material “that doesn’t last” when there’s no certain data on the mixes made 50 years ago and the design and construction techniques weren’t logged? On the other hand, I consider the opening to analytical or training initiatives of many companies, such as webinars, highly positive, following the logic of “I’m staying at home” and… I’m updating my knowledge.
I think that this offer, free of charge, is auspicious, an example of the great beauty of digital communication, which can be useful if there’s somebody who uses their head and is propositional behind it. In our own small way, we’ve tried to take part in this wave by, e.g. transmitting, free of charge, the PDFs of issues of the magazine by internet, following a logic of the greatest sharing of technical knowledge which is in the DNA of our publishing house (La Fiaccola), led by Lucia Saronni. As for sector events, I think we’re still at the study stage, with some positions of waiting and others of headlong rush. Undoubtedly, there’s a need to transform and be transformed, even in this context, on one hand going back to the local and, on the other, managing the global in increasingly innovative ways through digital communication channels.
F: Can ‘smart working’ really be considered a competitive advantage for design companies who’ll be able to structure their processes in an ‘agile’ manner also beyond the extraordinary situation of the current emergency? What are the risks of remote co-operation in relation to the aims of quality and centrality of the project?
FA: Design companies have been ‘smart’ for many years and they have certainly been trained in innovation for some time. They were able to step on the accelerator of ‘smart working’ much earlier and much better than other contexts. It’s a question of culture (technical and also digital) and the particular nature of the profession. I’ve got no doubt about the structuring of processes. As for the risks, I think that work must be done to achieve the right balance between remote working and working on site, which is and remains essential, cultivating values such as ductility, flexibility and especially functionality. Project and site feed off each other – both should really aim at interchanges that can be activated. The construction site must be digitalised and increase the levels of automation while the project mustn’t shut itself into an ivory tower but be shaped in practice, we could say in the old way. The quality of the work, accompanied by the greatest protection of health and safety of workers and users, must be the purpose of both. In this context, technological innovation, to transmit in the best way, can be a key factor.
F: Recent IPSOS research has highlighted that the Coronavirus is already showing the effects of a real tsunami on mobility dynamics, especially that of mass public transport. Should we say goodbye (at least for the moment) to local public transport? Or can this situation become an opportunity to rethink the whole mobility system from the sustainability point of view? What role can correct and effective communication play on this?
FA: We’re certainly faced with a ‘revolution’ that involves all transport methods and must be managed wisely by those with the powers of governance. The question is epoch-making and, at present, I wouldn’t like to say how it’ll finish as much also depends on the evolution of the epidemic. What I can note and bear witness to is that almost all the companies in our sector, from the institutions to the academia to industry, are giving these topics a great deal of thought.
Ideas are germinating. Work can also be done here on the acceleration of ongoing trends – I’m thinking of the introduction of vehicles fuelled by clean energy in urban centres or the commendable commitment of many motorway concessionaires, which can convert people, on this. On one hand, despite the current falls in traffic, we’re already seeing a return to the private vehicle which must, therefore, be supported by green policies and innovation, both at infrastructure and vehicular levels. On the other hand, there’s the great question mark of air transport, which has always been the most advanced sector technically speaking (I’m thinking of the quality of flight infrastructure in particular), now facing a truly difficult challenge. I really hope that, because of its great skill, it will win in the end. First of all, communication must tell and link rather than judge. It can then be effective in highlighting a synthesis that I still find difficult to see in this still evolving context. But we have to be watchful.
F: Still talking about mobility, in addition to all the initiatives that can and will be implemented to relaunch the public transport sector, it’s inevitable that the quota of private road transport can be expected to rise sharply in the coming months. What strategies, including communication, can be put in place immediately to mitigate the impact arising from the increase in risks for road safety?
FA: I referred to this before. It’s opportune to accelerate on all fronts to increase road safety standards. The commitment of all the players must be multiplied, whether or not there is a ‘viral’ shock, because the accident rate is already a more than dramatic scourge. We need to work on design, cultivating an increasing number of traffic calming solutions, the clarity of the signs or the quality of the materials, from bituminous mixes to those of cement. And we also need to stimulate legislators endlessly to ensure that there are good laws on both behaviour on the road and the safety of infrastructures. In the latter case, something is moving at Archivio Informatico Nazionale delle Opere Pubbliche (National Computerised Public Works Register) but that’s still not enough. In this area, communication can act as a binder between the links of a chain that sometimes appears uneven. Just consider that road safety is firstly a global fact that starts with the UN and should reach users through the work of national and regional bodies, which often don’t communicate as they should. Lastly, communication can’t be exempted from talking about (as professionally as possible) the new technologies of which here are plenty on the safety front, both for vehicles (think of the Italian autonomous modules that will circulate in Dubai or satellite-guided autonomous cars) and the infrastructure (there’s an evolution to valorise, e.g. in the fixed or temporary safety barrier sector, and the equipment for construction sites).
F: One of the most important aims of strategic and institutional communication is to become the essential reference point for your market contacts. What approach should AEC companies adopt to construct, maintain or even strengthen their image at such a delicate time?
FA: AEC companies mustn’t communicate more and more but better and better, levering the networking factor, i.e. talking to all the links in the chain at all levels in the most appropriate way. From the point of view of the technical work, the move is towards hyper-specialisation, but the AEC communicator must be multitasking, able to develop language that’s never banal but able to talk to all the skills in the field, from the civil engineers to BIM managers, hydraulic experts to sensor and lighting specialists. It’s crucial to keep both levels – internal communication and external communication, alive and to vary appropriately according to the target and the different occasions for visibility. We shouldn’t forget the international dimension and the use of English either; with digital culture, it’s an option that must be put at the centre of company communication policies.
F: Those who, like you, have been working in this context for a number of years knows very well that ‘communicators’ aren’t improvised, especially in the design and construction worlds. Having the most complex information or the most advanced information technologies isn’t enough to be automatically able to make your content usable and of value for a very varied public of stakeholders (from technicians to political decision-makers through to the final users of a work). What are your suggestions as an expert for the correct approach to communicating a project?
FA: The communication of a project, just as that of a construction site or infrastructure in general, must be a good mix of two factors – the strictly communication skills and the purely technical ones. These two worlds have to talk, they have to be open to full and positive co-operation, which leads to mutual enrichment, a continual refinement. My degree and specialisation is in mass communication, with bases in Humanities, but I’ve been working in the engineering sector for 20 years, firstly with the motorway operators and then concerned with the communication of infrastructure and mobility. You could say that I’ve been a ‘maestro’ and a ‘student’ at the same time every day for 20 years, i.e. I teach communication and I learn technique, continuously; this isn’t just rewarding but is to the advantage of the final product. This must, as you say, try to give homogeneity to an uneven context if looked at the most surface part but marked by common factors in the depths, those that only culture, and with this I go back to the starting point, can decode. Then, obviously, it’s no bad thing for technical communication to sometimes work on forms of entertainment or targeted dramatic presentations to attract attention. Here, the skilful use of titles and image design can be very useful. However, culture and preparation is also needed in this case. My most genuine satisfaction on this is the caricature I draw (in secret, with a pseudonym) of a person in the sector (including myself) in every issue of my magazine.