Podcast – Exploring the new rules of digital engagement -In Conversation with Elizabeth Linder

Elizabeth Linder has never held a position with an existing job description, but has always believed in the power of conversations and their crucial role in shaping the current and future world. For eight years to 2016, she worked at Facebook, where she founded and built the politics and government division for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. Elizabeth worked with leaders at the head of state, royal households or parliamentarians in more than 40 countries to develop new rules of conversation and engagement of social platforms.

Elizabeth now heads Beautiful Destination, a global agency working with Ministers of Tourism around the world in order to build meaningful tourism experiences. Born and raised in California, she is also a fine wine enthusiast and holds a WSET level three qualification.

We ask Elizabeth her views on how these rules of conversation and engagement and explore the numerous opportunities the current and most unique situation could create for the Fine Wine ecosystem.

ARENI

We basically live on Zoom: How different is a conversation when there’s a technology filter? Because we all see that it’s very useful for connecting, doing business as usual, but is it good enough for building trust with someone that you don’t know, for building intimacy?

Elizabeth Linder

Pre the COVID-19 crisis, everyone would compare a conversation by a video conference – like the discussion you and I are having now – to sitting together, enjoying a glass of wine or sitting together at a coffee shop. And so you’re comparing the digital world to an offline world. The digital sides of the conversation have felt as though they somewhat fall flat of the real deal, of that real opportunity to sit in front of somebody and see the nuances in their expressions.

But what’s totally different now is we are not comparing our digital conversations to an offline social world. We’re comparing our digital conversations to an offline isolated world. And I think that has created a huge blossoming of life, and authenticity, and excitement into the digital space because all of a sudden, you’re going from being entirely alone or confined to the people who live within your household, to being surrounded by friends, and family and colleagues.

I think this is a huge moment for digital communications. I think it reminds us how easy it can be to connect to people from all over the world. All of a sudden, those conversations are getting so much more meaningful because they’re our only choice. And I think that has humanized these technologies.

ARENI

Do you see us going straight back to physical meetings when we can travel?

Elizabeth Linder

We all know that nothing really replaces in-person human connections, whether that’s business or personal. I think the moment that these travel restrictions lift, we are going to want to spend time with our families. We are going to want to spend time with our colleagues. We are going to want to go somewhere that we’ve been longing to spend time this summer physically and get traveling again. But I think layered within that, some of the new habits we’ve adopted are actually wonderful ones that we probably can and should retain. On a personal level, for example, I’ve lived in London for nine years. As a result of this current crisis, I have started enjoying weekend dinner parties with my family in California.

And I sit there and I think, gosh, I’ve lived here for nine years. Why has it never occurred to me that we could spend a Saturday together? Lunchtime for them is dinner time for me. Last Saturday, we all bought exactly the same wine, so we were essentially sharing the same bottle of wine together. It’s incredibly fun. And I actually hope that in a post COVID world, we continue with some of these traditions because I think some of this is actually encouraging us to think differently about how we bring the technology we have access to into our lives in a more constructive way.

Just a few days ago, everyone who’s in the network of Berry Brothers & Rudd here in London, London’s oldest wine merchant got an email that said, ‘we’re very sorry, Londoners, but we have to momentarily stop delivery because you have overwhelmed our systems. As soon as we can get caught up to speed again, we will get you everything that you’re looking for’. Wine sales have absolutely skyrocketed through this. And so many of the conversations that we’re having globally with family, and friends and alumni networks are taking place over a shared a glass of wine, even though we’re having those conversations via video conference.

And what we have to remember is some of those events are actually not replacing something that would otherwise exist. They’re entirely new.

ARENI

When you were at Facebook, you started the conversation with world leaders and politicians around the world in 2011, if I’m correct. Nearly 10 years ago. But if you look at the global picture, the wine world is still reluctant to connect and to engage directly to consumers and fine wine world in total transparency. Why’d you think it is?

Elizabeth Linder

It was true in the world of policy and politics and government back in those earlier Facebook days. The challenge was not just getting a press conference online. The challenge was how do you encourage a leader to just talk to people and to humanize yourself with people. And I think it’s especially hard for the fine wine industry, given that programmatically, the mindset in the fine wine world is all about human interaction and it’s about connecting to the terroir.

But I think there is a lot of scope now for the industry to think about how that opens up our opportunity to learn from even more people. So for example, if you’re looking to learn from a certain region in the world, you might historically only bring in the top wine maker, because it really only makes sense to fly out one person.

Well, now if you’re actually hosting an event with people through video, you might have a whole spectrum of people.

I think a really great example of this comes from the world of politics. So many leaders have emerged from the woodwork on digital and social media to connect to people in a way that we wanted to for such a long time. A great example would be Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. If you look at her social media channels, she has the very formal live broadcast on the social media channels, where everyone is in the proverbial suit and tie, delivering the formal government briefing. Then there’s Saturday morning, hair in a ponytail, running around after a young child, managing home life and work life in such a relatable way. And just spending some time answering people’s individual questions.

ARENI

The laws of conversations have changed. Before, the leader in any industry had to have that mysterious ‘I’m just here to give you direction and I’m almost a super human’. And now the law of conversation is to make yourself accessible, relate to people.

Elizabeth Linder

Yeah, it’s a great leveller in a way, because what you see is, everyone is balancing a personal life and a professional life. And whether you’re the most senior executive or the most junior employee, all of a sudden, those barriers have had to come down because everything we’re doing is taking place at home. And so, if you are on your own and you’ve got kids running in and out of your living room, that used to be an internet sensation moment with that famous BBC interview. Now, it’s everyday life, and everyone gets it, and everyone understands.

I think that out of this, we’re all going to come back to our workplaces having a much deeper understanding of what it means to be the human professional.

Historically, often businesses have been run out of the home. I haven’t studied this in great detail, but I think your typical medieval store would be on the ground floor and then the family would live upstairs.

And this concept of going to an office creates the, quote, perfect environment for professional life, but at the same time, there’s something deeply inhuman about it because it does mean then that your home life is getting taken care of by somebody else, a spouse, or a partner, or a nanny, or schools, or whatever that is. And so, this has really placed, I think, a pause button on our way of thinking about our personal and professional lives that’s probably very healthy.

ARENI

You moved from Facebook and working with politicians to creating your own company. Now you work in the tourism industry, which is, of course, one of the industries which is affected the most by the crisis. Do you want to elaborate a bit on this and what you are facing right now?

Elizabeth Linder

Absolutely. Well, this is a seminal moment for the tourism industry. The level of impact on jobs, on people’s lives, is that perhaps we gotten ourselves a little bit away from what the opportunity to travel and what tourism actually should be, which is a process of discovery.

It is a renewed perspective. It is learning. You never come back from a trip the same as when you departed, because you’ve always encountered something new. Travel shouldn’t be about a checklist of ticking the boxes of what you’ve seen and going through that mental process. It actually should be something that’s so much richer than that.

There was a wonderful article recently in the weekend Financial Times by Alain de Botton talking about the relationship between the curious mind and the art of travel. And I think that for a Minister of Tourism right now, there’s a lot of opportunities to think about how it is that they re-introduce the process of learning and curiosity into the traveller’s mindset, because that really is how we get the most of exploring the world.

ARENI

And it’s also how you get more sustainable, in a way, because if everyone’s got the same checklist, you have them with problems in Venice and the Instagram log and everyone that goes to the same place for everything. Whereas if you cultivate that curiosity, everyone’s got a different perspective on how they want to travel. And that’s also something that resonates for fine wine, because of course we are heavily reliant on tourism and on people traveling.

Elizabeth Linder

Exactly, exactly. And how you even prepare for the trip. I think what a lot of people are doing right now are thinking very carefully, where am I going to go as soon as I’m allowed to go again, but what will I do when I get there? What do I want to see? What do I want to soak in? What do I want to appreciate?

ARENI

And wineries are dreaming more about welcoming customers than they even were before. So they can also think the other way and the way backwards in what really they would like to prepare when the clients come again and are allowed to visit again.

Elizabeth Linder

The tourism industry has a very long history of facing a crisis moment where people have stopped traveling. An earthquake, a hurricane, some political unrest, terrorist attack, all of those events do impact the tourism industry. But the message historically has always been the same: Come now, support us, spend money in our country to help get our businesses back on track. This crisis is such a different one because in a pandemic scenario, and in a global health crisis scenario, the best message that everybody can give is, stay home, stay away, don’t come right now. This is not a good time to come.

But it is a good time for so many other things. And I think that’s the point for any industry executive: what do you want to encourage your patrons to be thinking about right now, or learning right now, so that when they can come again, they get something completely different and even more of a rich experience out of that journey?

ARENI

But if you had to fight for three things, three sacred cows that are pre-everything, pre-crisis, what would it be? Some stuff that we really need to save from the world from before?

Elizabeth Linder

I would like to reframe my three sacred cows so to speak. Who do we want to be as societies and as individuals and as businesses that’s better than what we were before? How can we challenge ourselves to really use this moment – if you’re healthy enough and able to, and a lot of people are not. A lot of people are suffering economically and financially, and in terms of their health. But if you do have a head space at the moment: What do I want to be when I come back to the real world?

I hope that we retain looking in each other’s eyes even as strangers and seeing delight rather than fear. And I think it will take a while for us to work through that process because there is a sense at a grocery store right now of being afraid of our fellow citizens. But I think in terms of our re-entry to “life as normal”, I hope we retain the lovely playing field that we’ve gotten through humanizing ourselves through discussions like this one, home to home, family to family. I hope that we retain some element of that humanity that comes when everything we do, whether it’s just talking to our friends and family or our business and professional lives, that it’s living room to living room, home to home. I also hope that we retain through this the outpouring of imagination that I am seeing and creativity that I am seeing across digital and social media platforms is everything we always wanted it to be in those early days at YouTube and Facebook. It’s how do you create platforms such that people can exercise the best, most creative, most imaginative version of themselves. And it doesn’t matter how well trained of a singer you are or what background you have or what credentials you have. You can use this medium to connect to people.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. To hear the full discussion, go to:

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