Compelling Communication Requires Confidence. Does Your Company Have It?
Recently the Chicago Sun-Times' Neil Steinberg was turned down by the Wrigley Company when he asked to see how the gum was made.
Steinberg's complaint struck the crux of the corporate communicator's plight:
"At times, it seems that half of any big company is desperately grabbing for publicity while the other half, with equal fervor, frantically tries to keep itself under wraps."
This is true not only in media relations, but in every area of corporate communication:
We shower employees with the sorts of facts that will motivate them and keep them humble, but we mute equal truths that might make them scratch their heads or furrow their brow. We go to great lengths to convince business writers and financial analysts of the newsworthiness and brilliance of our latest market strategy but we gloss over the white-hot top-management turmoil that forged the strategy. And we want customers to take our brand into their hearts, and we spend millions and millions of dollars to that end. But by "brand," we mean the series of George Washington-and-the-cherry-tree fables we like to tell about our corporate culture, and the sepia-toned product mythology into which we hope consumers will want to place themselves.
Do we want our constituents to embrace the whole mottled history and complex reality of our organization? Hell to the no! This is marketing, not marriage.
Now, some people will tell you all that has changed with social media. Those people are either idiots or sharpers.
While companies pay fashionable lip service to “transparency,” they’re working hard to impose "social media management systems" upon their madly proliferating, decentralized social media communication messaging. And dozens of new SMMS vendors are popping up to help them.
And meanwhile, the difference between effective and ineffective corporate communication and marketing comes down, as it always has, to corporate confidence. Not recklessness. Not open-the-kimono candor. Just confidence.
The CEO’s confidence to answer employees’ toughest questions—and the further confidence to answer, “I don’t know.”
The CMO’s confidence to go to bat for a communicative commercial that could conceivably offend someone.
The PR director's confidence to be a little more straight with reporters than her tight-lipped counterpart at the competitor.
And everyone's confidence in the basic intelligence, resiliency and sustainable social contribution of the organization. When a company feels that way, you can smell it, taste it, hear it and see it—not in wild, undisciplined messages, but in relaxed language that tells the world:
In the long run, we trust you to judge us not on how bad our bad ideas are, but how good our good ideas are.
In the long run, we think you’ll overlook our mistakes because we contribute something valuable to the world.
In the long run, you’ll like us, because we are good, and we know it.
That’s the feeling that dominates the cultures of companies that communicate well—and that’s so hard to find in companies that don’t.
David Murray is a longtime commentator on communication. The editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, he also writes for magazines and newspapers. And he blogs about his work and his life at Writing Boots.