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Blow Up Your Corp Comms

The world we knew at the start of 2020 longer exists. Covid has disrupted how we work, live, and learn, and the only certainty about the future is that we’re not returning to the past.

Therefore, it’s the perfect time to disrupt how your company (and how you) communicate.

No, it’s past time, and it’s not an opportunity, it’s a requirement. Your stakeholders require novel approaches, and your management wants better ideas that cost less money.

So, here are 5 ways you could disrupt what you do:

The Gauntlet To Mediocrity

First, blow up your processes. Does your company communicate by committee? It’s common to put communications content through a wringer of brand and marketing types, business leads, subject area experts, and often a very senior exec (or more), each of whom has 1) A different agenda, 2) Limited knowledge of the requirements of your media customers, and 3) About a nanosecond to review your stuff.

Now is the time to challenge that Gauntlet to Mediocrity and tell people the truth, both about the form requirements of your tools — like press releases, for example, they can’t have headlines longer than a few words, and filling exec quotes in press releases with buzzwords about strategy are not only routinely ignored but actually harm your credibility — and the strategic realities of your intent (i.e. participating in public conversations means talking about issues that matter to your customers which, in the press release instance, are media who need blunt ideas and conflict vs. blather from your branding strategy slide presentation).

When your stuff gets challenged, muster the audacity to ask for more clarity on the basis of those comments. Dare to tell your internal stakeholders what can be achieved based on what they’ve given you, not what they abstractly hope for. Add, when your stuff takes more than a day or two to get approved, or gets watered-down, risk telling them that there’s no point in distributing it. 

Thought Followship

Second, let’s face it: Almost all of the “thought leadership” that we impose on our external stakeholders 1) Isn’t really thoughtful, since it usually parrots the same research, whether you’ve conducted it or bought it from pricey consultants, since every other company is buying and promoting the same content, and therefore 2) Doesn’t really lead on anything.

Thought leadership is about telling people stuff they didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and/or might not agree with. In fact, if you don’t risk pissing someone off with what you publish, it’s likely thought followship.

Imagine if the content attributed to your senior executives challenged conventional wisdom on some topic relevant to your business (or, better yet, relevant to your customers and communities)? These topics should originate in the outside world and not bubble up from the pit of your branding gurus, since it’s rarely going to be about how your company “leads” on so-and-so product or market specifics, nor how your stuff is uniquely suited to answer questions that nobody has asked of you.

Chances are you don’t even know what your execs think about the realities of social justice, artificial intelligence, climate change, or any other topic that your external stakeholders read, write, and care about. Can you say something different or challenging about something? Would it risk putting one of your execs out on a limb, if not actively encourage people to voice their competing opinions? Isn’t it time your stakeholders heard stuff that actually mattered?

Dare To Fail

Third, if you spent any time reviewing the content on most big company websites, you’d think the tide is turning against global climate change, full-time employees are driving miraculous innovation, and smiling, happy people in far-away places are incredibly thankful for corporate largesse.

And then we wonder why people don’t trust us.

How about making a fundamental change in the purpose of your comms, shifting from solely touting successes to sharing ongoing challenges, too? After all, having a corporate “purpose” isn’t about being right all the time, or having solved the problems of the world, but striving toward betterment…a journey that is not linear nor always happy.

So, those stats you provide about your great progress in reducing carbon emissions? Have the honesty to point out that you still generate too much of the stuff and are struggling to innovate ways to capture more of it. What are the thorny aspects of your customers lives that aren’t easily fixed with a charitable contribution or volunteerism from your employees?

Perhaps most importantly, what have you tried that didn’t work as you’d planned, and how have you learned from it? Being right all the time just isn’t credible.

Let Social Grow Up

Fourth, do you remember that generational change-thing that was a big deal before the pandemic struck, specifically as it related to both how you communicated and what tools you used? Many big companies created social teams, or outsourced the activity, and always made sure that they were staffed with Millennials or, better yet, Gen Z types because, well, they genetically just knew how to do whatever needed to be done.

Turns out 1) They aren’t predisposed with an affinity for doing anything in particular, other than being human beings, 2) They’re not the only ones using social media or the social functions of media overall (hint: we all are), and 3) All the made-up processes and measures for their activities via said media are overdue for rehab and should probably get folded back into the org and process norms of your communications overall.

It would disrupt what you put into social channels, how often you did it and, most importantly, what you expected from it. I’m reminded of the transition CRM software made from its introduction as “this thing you have to do” with requirements of faithful obedience, to an integrated component that supported what you already did. Maybe it’s time to let social grow up, too?

Death To Stock Photography

Fifth, and this is an ongoing bugaboo for me, it’s long since past time to stop using generic stock photography in your comms (see social above).

You know the images I’m talking about: Versions of cityscapes crisscrossed with glowing lines intended to say “digital,” people having orgasms while getting something accomplished on their smartphones, and the omnipresent shots of diverse individuals sitting around a table, staring at a whiteboard, or otherwise working together in pixelated harmony.

Who ever told us those pictures communicated anything whatsoever? The idea that we put them on websites, at the top of blogs and press release or, gasp, push them out on social (because people want images…like these?) is laughable.

An image should add value to written content because it communicates something that words couldn’t, or does so in a different or more compelling way. Think how differently you’d approach your visual toolbox if you kept this remit front and center? An imperfect but authentic shot that communicated something real would be far more beneficial to you than a perfect ersatz shot that communicated nothing.

PS, the same goes for your videos which, if they come with even a hint of being corporately-produced, are probably a waste of your money (because they’re a waste of your stakeholders’ time).

There are dozens if not hundreds of other ways you can and should disrupt your communications.

If the ideas scare you, consider this: That changed world I mentioned at the start of this essay? It’s already disrupting what you do, so you might as well lean into the challenge and embrace change. There’s no going back to the way things once were, and practices that presume that they’ve never changed are only going to get more irrelevant going forward.

It could be a glorious opportunity to experiment, have fun, and maybe even succeed!

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“SDG” Is Just An Acronym

Many global businesses use the UN’s SDG’s as drivers of their sustainability comms. There must be a better way to narrate their journeys.

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the UN’s members in 2015 as the areas in need of change in order to live up to its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They cover everything from ending poverty (SDG #1) and achieving gender equality (SDG #5), to making cities inclusive and safe (SDG #11) and ensuring affordable and sustainable water (SDG #6) and energy (SDG #7) for all.

Where are we now, five years later and a third of the way closer to the 2030 deadline? Last time I checked, the planet is on fire, societies are in chaos, and nations are cooperating less than ever before.

You wouldn’t know this from the reporting of large global businesses, however. Progress is being made on all 17 SDGs, and there are percentages and cartoony infographics to prove those accomplishments. Heart-tugging personal story vignettes often accompany this reporting.

The result is a huge gap between what we’re being told and what we see around us.

I’m not questioning the work itself, which is both real and absolutely necessary; rather, it’s how companies talk about it, and there are three reasons why referencing SDGs doesn’t help their case:

First, I’d wager that most people don’t even know what they are.

Acronyms are where words go to die. They’re secret code, meaningful only to the initiated in the way that EBITDA has meaning for accountants (or OPS screams importance to baseball fans). Acronyms are the labels for diseases and spy agencies.

Specific to SDGs, we Americans can easily mistake the acronym for “STP,” which is either an oil additive or 90’s grunge band, depending on your age.

It’s impossible to make progress against an acronym that has no meaning for most of your public stakeholders. No handful of letters can bestow an imprimatur of legitimacy.

My experience is that the real measures for any sustainability initiative are a company’s performance metrics, in that companies need to show that doing good is good business. But more on that in a bit…

Second, most people (at least most Americans) don’t know or care about the UN, and many who do are critics.

I lived in NYC in the 1980’s and I can tell you that we were blissfully unaware that the UN was headquartered there. We all knew where Wall Street was located and that it was very important. My only memories related to the UN are of limos with diplomatic license plates parking where others couldn’t.

More broadly, many Americans aren’t big fans of global cooperation. We refused to sign up for the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, and we ended up hosting the UN because we were pretty much the only economy left standing after WWII.

We are its largest single source of funds, though not out of any sense of altruism. A world that doesn’t blow itself up is good for American interests, and an entity that often (though inconsistently) support ours interests is a good thing in practice, even if we don’t approve of its existence in principle.

Nobody has ever bothered to explain that to us, however, so lots of us default to our genetic distrust of overseers (of any ilk). We’re also predisposed to believe in wild conspiracy theories, so the premise that some supposed world government and its bureaucrats are going to tell us what to do is, well, just un-American.

Being seen as doing its bidding is probably not the best PR strategy, even if they’re right.

Third, the SDGs are insanely beyond the reach of anyone’s imagination, let alone our ability to achieve them.

I mean, really, 17 commandments? God only needed 10. Net Promoter Scores require three. Showing up in court requires one.

The totality of some of the SDG goals (like eradicating hunger) are only matched by the vagueness of others (such as “decent” work for all). Maybe that’s why there are an endless array of summits, conferences, agendas, frameworks, and reports produced in support of them; the UN’s website lists “960 Events, 1205 Publications, 5132 Partnerships, and 174 Targets.”

Again, I’m willing to believe that its architects are all principled, well-intentioned individuals, but whatever positive change they enable is buried under whatever next round of blather they’re publishing or promoting. There’s no way to reach some of the goals and no way to objectively know we’ve reached others.

The cynic in me sees it as a full-employment program for bureaucrats, along with the “public interest” groups that track the SDGs and the corporate communicators held accountable for reporting against them.

And the world continues to burn.

What could sustainability comms look like instead? Well, for starters, it would avoid references to global-level measures and look closer to home. The actions of even the biggest companies represent a drop in the bucket against worldwide numbers. Take it as a given that a business supports the UN’s SDG goals. It’s like stating that you believe in happiness.

Instead, look to metrics on actual business performance and set goals based on the contexts of the communities in which you operate.

Dare to swap a happy infographic for a comprehensible statement of activity, like expressing your carbon emissions not in metric tonnes or as a percentage of some exotic global number, but in a commonly-understood analogy, like “we kept X number of Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with soot from entering the atmosphere.”

Risk telling the truth about what you’re doing wrong as well as right; the journey to sustainability isn’t made up only of positive steps but rather lots of difficult and nuanced trade offs. And failures. And imperfect solutions. And more work to be done.

Dare to address the trade offs, especially those in customer experience (including pricing), as well as the detrimental impacts progress in one area might have on another. Educate your stakeholders on what your progress means for product updates, durability, your profits, etc. Make them participants in your journey, not just spectators.

Dare to acknowledge what people can see with their own eyes, and craft your comms to talk to them about it, and not about SDGs.

Ultimately, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will end in disappointment, as no goals will be met completely. Another plan will be announced, perhaps targeting 2045, and certainly another round of SDGs (perhaps more of them) and a new array of meetings and papers.

Supporting the spirit of those efforts is spot on, but focusing your comms on your business and you efforts to reach your own goals, and not those labeled with the UN’s acronym, is the better way to narrate your sustainability journey.

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People, Not Channels

If your sales team approached customers the way we communicators talk at our stakeholders, your company would go out of business.

The differences are shocking, and for years they’ve been evident in the different ways each department is treated:

  • Sales departments are all but untouchable by others in the organization because what they do is too sensitive and vital to a company’s survival. Nobody can tell a sales person how to sell (other than other salespeople). The company exists to give them what they require, if not simply tolerate them.
  • Marketing and communications departments are everyone’s business because everyone else knows what’s best for them; in fact, everyone is an expert, so they feel empowered to question and otherwise manage what marketers and communicators do, and tolerate their protestations otherwise.

I say we communicators are mostly responsible for this condition and, instead of bemoaning the fact that we’re “not at the table” or getting replaced by automation, we could face up to the three problems inherent in the very premise of what we do (and how we see ourselves):

Messaging

I hate the word messaging because it’s almost as generic as content only it comes with an implicit assumption of meaning or relevance. It has neither.

Messaging is usually nonsense because it arises from the mistaken assumption that our job is to tell people what they should know.

Sure, research identifies interests and triggers for categories of “buyers” of information, but those are treated as mere tactical considerations. Messaging is somehow strategic because it comes from inside, from the beautiful conceptions of brands that exist nowhere in the world other than on slick PowerPoint presentations from branding consultants.

Haven’t you ever wondered how so many companies can lead on things like sustainability or fighting climate change and yet the world is still burning to a crisp? What about all the promises of better living with technology that seems oddly detached from solving the problems that we truly face? Did anybody ask to live in a “smart city” or volunteer to give up their job to a robot?

Every company is changing the world for the better yet nothing seems to be getting better.

How many times have you looked at (or been responsible for producing) a list of corporate or brand messages and said to yourself “nobody has asked for this, and nobody will believe it?”

People are crying out the world over for simple, honest, and credible communications from us, and we give them messaging. The good news is that we’re not solely responsible for it since everyone else in the organization is telling us what to do.

But that’s the bad news, too.

Motivators

Our goal is to occupy our target audiences’ time, usually by throwing stuff at them (see messaging above).

It’s kind of hilarious, if you think about it. An entire canon has emerged that dictates we spend time and money utilizing a long list of communications channels, broken down into categories of paid, earned, shared, and owned media. We’re told, and tell our compatriots, that we must fill them with stuff and, since most of them apart from the most discerning earned outlets are willing to propagate whatever garbage we throw out (see messaging above), we can then point to the barrage and claim victory.

We’re constantly looking to push stuff at our customers to motivate them to…wait for it…endure it. We make it funny, or brief, or attach a stock photo of some ersatz scene because experts tell us people like images. We reformat it for various technology platforms, so we can push stuff on peoples’ smartphones as easily as we once did on their TVs.

And we repeat all the tactical advice research gives us about topics and keywords, attaching them to our messaging (see…well, you get the drift) because our strategy is motivated by channel abuse, not content care.

Imagine if sales people were dumb enough to approach their customers this way. I’ve known sales people who made a big noise about how many meetings they held in any given month. If closed deals didn’t soon follow, they were out of a job.

Imagine if we were daring enough to say nothing when we had nothing to say.

Metrics

We watch made-up measures of acknowledgment and feeling while sales looks at, well, sales. And then we wonder why our budgets get cut before theirs.

The list of invented metrics for communications is too long to repeat here, so I’ll highlight one I particularly hate: Share of voice. I’m not sure there’s any one definition of what it means but I think it’s a measure of how broadly and often company messages appear in all of those media channels I mentioned earlier.

More is better, of course, and repeats of those messaging messages are worth bonus points.

It’s glorious nonsense, considering there’s no direct or reliable causal relationship between mentions in the aggregate, in that brand names mentioned more often don’t necessarily sell more or more profitably, and repeats of those marketing messages don’t make them more credible or useful.

Imagine if your conversational strategy with someone who didn’t understand you was to raise your voice and repeat what you were saying more often.

It’s worse when you consider the fundamentals of branding on which our marketing and communications are based.

What’s a brand? Good question. No two people, not even in the branding world, agree. What is or isn’t branding? Again, who knows? It’s either certain stuff or everything, depending on who you ask and what services they’re hoping to sell.

At risk of misapplying a Churchill quote, “Marketing/communications is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

We measure our successes at realizing that fantasy with marvelous charts and graphs, even computer dashboards that tee them up in real time (because real time fantasies are better than fantasies postponed).

And then we tell one another how to do it more often. I caught an article this morning arguing that marketing and communications need to up their budgets during downturns.

I get the doubling down response, but anybody who saw the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid knows how the movie ends.

Monday

We could start changing the deal next week, and the pandemic provides the perfect prompt since things are and will change whether or not we’re authors of it.

I’d risk borrowing ideas from sales, starting with how sales folks message — they generally discover what customers really need instead of lecturing them — followed by coming up with motivators other than consumption for the stuff we produce and then measuring results other than that consumption.

Less sharing and more selling, and then standing up for what we’re doing with real world backup.

Just imagine a day when your organization has as much faith in (or fear of) marketing and communications as it does for sales. Here’s a simple measure that’ll reveal how you’re doing on that front: How many non-sales executives presume to review what sales people say to current or prospective customers, or how they they say it?

Yeah, zilch.

The closer we get to that number, the more proof it’ll be that you’re doing things that actually matter.

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The WHO Hired A PR Firm. Good Luck With That.

The World Health Organization (“WHO”) is paying PR firm Hill + Knowlton (“H+K”) $135,000 over the span of six weeks to assess its problems, identify its potential advocates and detractors, and test its messaging.

Good luck with that.

[Read the essay at Spiritual Telegraph]

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You Should Plan For Alternatives To CES

It’s not certain and a lot can happen between now and early 2021, but my bet is that the annual Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”) will be cancelled or severely curtailed.

The show is still on, according to its organizers (the Consumer Technology Association, or “CTA”), and it promises to “highlight technologies that help provide solutions for some of the day-to-day challenges created by the pandemic.”

But the numbers just don’t look good. Over 175,000 people attended last year’s event, and anybody who has gone to a CES knows that the crush of crowds is the rule, not the exception. If you’re not stuck in a gaggle of people on the show floor or at a bar, you’re likely standing in a line to get from one to the other.

In fact, interacting with people is pretty much the only reason why CES still exists.

Brands have been pulling back from trade shows for decades, choosing instead to host their own events (made possible by technologies that connect them directly with their customers and other stakeholders). Also, definitions have blurred, so many of the sellers and buyers of once distinct technology products are now the same department or person.

After the COMDEX shows folded in 2003, CES made itself an annual gig and became the only place everyone could reasonably expect to run into everyone else.

So, when the CTA promises to “sanitize spaces across show venues,” it’s referencing about 3 million square feet of various surfaces (i.e. good luck with that). “Widening aisles” will just let more people crowd into them, much like extra highway lanes do nothing to relieve congestion, and “cashless systems for purchases” will still require buyers to touch whatever it is they buy (or eat).

When you add the political insanity of some Americans refusing to wear masks (despite CES’s “best practice” suggestion otherwise), and the likelihood that the coronavirus will be raging without a vaccine and, well, there’s just as likely a chance that the CTA won’t cancel or cut back on the event…but that people just won’t come, especially from countries around the world that have better managed their outbreaks.

Exhibiting at CES can be a significant expense for brands, so it makes sense to plan for some sort of disruption of next year’s event. Here are three things to consider…

[Read the entire essay at Spiritual Telegraph]

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How To Ruin A Good Idea

A number of insurance companies are refunding a portion of customers’ auto payments during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is a smart and fair gesture.

Unfortunately, they’ve ruined it with marketing.

The gesture didn’t start out so lily-white, either. Fewer people on the roads means fewer accidents, so the insurance companies are looking at a windfall in profits during a time when most other businesses will see a shortfall. The California insurance commissioner actually ordered some sort of customer financial relief.

So, the refunds had mercenary PR benefits for the companies in hopes of cushioning their successes in a time of failures. Got it. Welcome to the real world. That doesn’t make the gesture wholly illegitimate.

That task was reserved for the marketers to deliver.

I’ve checked the websites of most of the top insurance companies, and none of them are telling the truth; instead, they’re spinning the effort as if it were an entirely charitable gesture. State Farm has even branded it, calling it the “Good Neighbor Relief Program,” and is running TV ads touting its largesse.

This spin literally dares us to ignore the facts that insurance companies aren’t in the business of giving away anything, and that there’s usually a catch in the mouse print and, instead, somehow embrace a different reality in which 1) this time is different, somehow, and 2) there aren’t any gotchas in the details.

At least American Family noted the reality of fewer drivers meaning less accidents (Disclosure: I am a customer), but still introduced its “unprecedented action” to “help our customers” and “return the savings to you” when it’s keeping some of the cash (and benefiting from all of the savings in reduced processing) for itself.

I can imagine a different approach to the programs that would have been far more credible and beneficial to everyone involved:

First, lead with the truth — say something like we’re bathing in cash that we didn’t earn so we’re giving it back — and go the extra mile to disclose the math behind what’s being paid out. With such transparency, the insurers could have given customers options, like extended policies for a few extra months at no charge (or some other way to spend the benefit) vs. getting a check in the mail. At least it wouldn’t have felt like they were doing us a favor (which they’re not).

If telling the truth is too scary to insurers, at least they could have skipped all of the self-congratulatory nonsense and simply said “here ya go.”

Second, speaking of congratulatory nonsense, how about skipping the branding and TV commercials and just sending people money? I could see such an approach prompting a lot of questions and social media currency, as people used their own voices to share and promote the program. Why does every act of goodwill need to be marketed (and this isn’t just goodwill)?

Third, what about the day after the pandemic when people are getting in their cars and being 1) anxious overall, 2) potentially distracted, and 3) rusty behind the wheel? Aren’t there some actuaries or AI bots crunching those numbers, and might they be worse than they were when lots of people stopped commuting?

The insurance companies could have addressed this issue head-on as well, linking its payments to some educational or other activities to prepare people for that eventuality.

Similarly, what if a good number of folks never go back to physical commuting even when they’re allowed to do so? Couldn’t the companies have used the refund as a prompt for starting conversations about reevaluating their policies and make first-ever adjustments halfway through policy periods?

Encouraging safe travel should be paramount, which might mean some folks rarely getting behind the wheel again. Shouldn’t insurance companies be thinking about preparing for the impact that’ll have on their balance sheets?

Ultimately, the insurance refunds were nice — we received $50/ea. for our two cars — but the amount wasn’t anywhere near as important as the gesture itself.

Sending money back to customers was a good idea. It’s too bad marketers ruined it.

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And They Wonder Why We Don’t Trust Them

It turns out that plastic recycling is a ruse invented by the oil and gas industry to stave off consumer backlash and more restrictive regulation.

The majority of plastic waste we throw into recycling bins either can’t or won’t be recycled, according to an investigative report that aired on NPR in late March. Less than 10% of it has been recycled over the past 40 years, and the industry knew this fact while it told the world otherwise.

This represents a far more overt and sinister (and successful) effort to mislead us compared to the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to sow confusion over climate change. Sure, claiming there were “two sides” to a debate that doesn’t exist was dishonest, but convincing us that stuffing our blue bins with plastic was good for the planet was a boldfaced lie.

Now there’s no way we can take on face-value any of the statements made by those companies or their trade industry shills ever again. Just read the Plastic Industry Association’s response to the NPR story, and you’ll spend more time reading between the lines than anything else.

It didn’t have to be this way.

I blame corporate leaders who valued the next quarter’s profits over all else. I blame government regulators who didn’t understand the science, or chose to ignore it. I blame an accounting standards regime that didn’t assign value to the environment or human health. I blame public relations and advertising people who confused propaganda with persuasion.

And I blame us.

I know that I couldn’t tell you where the plastic goes once I throw it in the bin, just like I don’t know what happens to the rest of the mountains of garbage my household generates every week.

Maybe you’re a more informed consumer than I am, but I don’t think any of us (or enough of us) pushed on the plastics topic; had we done so, perhaps we could have uncovered the truth sooner?

Fortunately, we have far more tools available to us now than we did a decade ago, let alone 40 years ago when the recycling lies first appeared. NGOs, online communities, and smartphone apps let us better explore and monitor what’s being presented to us, whether about plastics or any other products.

This represents a meaningful shift in power from those who share content to its intended recipients.

Because, sadly, while the oil and gas industry might be the most egregious example of corporate evil, the chances are that other industries haven’t been telling us the whole truth, either. So, I’m using this latest revelation from NPR to get more serious about looking at original sources, supply chains, and the entire use/discard cycles for the stuff I consume.

But the idea that it’s just my job alone, and that consumers need to look out for themselves without any help — or in the face of active corporate efforts to confuse us — is unacceptable.

I think companies need to reevaluate how they communicate, too.

Specifically, the idea that facts can or should be twisted to make a point probably needs some seriously explicit, narrow, and irrevocable guardrails, and then communicators need to have the audacity to say no when employers or clients challenge them.

I believe that PR people need to serve not just as translators of company operations, but as guardians of truth. Less tactical stooges, and more moral advisors.

Imagine had the plastics industry chosen to tell us the truth about recycling in the first place. It would have been hard, unsatisfying, and lots of us might have rejected it outright. But a concerted, transparent, and long-term campaign intended to educate and inform consumers about the reality of recycling might have established better understanding of the real issues…and bought companies the space and time to work on real solutions.

It would have also been a better mercenary business decision.

The lesson here is that informing consumers is better than simply trying to spin or keep them quiet.

Oh, and don’t lie.

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PR’s Moment Of Truth

All of the PR people I know are running around like I am, making sure they’re getting the job done for their companies or clients. But one thing is making things a lot easier:

Now we get to tell them the truth, and they’re telling the truth to their stakeholders.

No, don’t get me wrong. I think PR folks are among the smartest, most principled people I know, and I haven’t met more than a handful over my 35-year career who didn’t bring an incredible amount of sincerity and passion to everything they did.

But the opposite of truth isn’t a lie: rather, it’s a huge grey expanse created by marketers, branding experts, and assorted management consultants, and filled with branding and process nonsense in which we’re forced to swim, tread water, and sometimes drown.

It’s the proverbial swamp, and the coronavirus crisis is draining it.

Suddenly, coming up with utterly made-up reasons to post on social media seems pointless. Product announcements will be ignored if they lead with insider gibberish or follow with highfalutin executive quotes cribbed from trend studies. Employees will rise up in revolution if we propagate the tired old retreads of marcom blather that until only recently passed for internal communications.

Repetition of brand values, missions, promises, and whatever will not longer be tolerated. Stock images of happy, racially and gender-mixed teams of people working closely together across a table won’t pass for company imagery, just as promises of a glorious future enabled by technology and providing abstractions of “added value” and “enhanced experiences” are no longer relevant (if they ever were).

There’s no time for meetings in which the majority of attendees raise thoughtful questions about scale and integration but don’t volunteer to be responsible for follow-up tasks. One more executive isn’t allowed to tear up a process in which she or he spent no time as a contributor or co-owner. If somebody isn’t actually doing things other than overseeing or managing things, they’re not invited to the party.

Why?

Because the crisis won’t let us ignore what stakeholders always wanted: Truth, in the form of transparent communications that, by definition, would be relevant and useful and, thereby, credible.

Fate demands that we deliver it.

It’s an incredible responsibility and opportunity, and each of us has a choice on how we’ll respond. We can embrace it as a New Day for how we interact with our clients and internal stakeholders, or we can try to preserve our old ways.

We can dare to reimagine the very structure of why, what, and how we communicate, and revisit how we pay for work and what we get for it in return. Or we can pretend that we’re experiencing a passing crisis “messaging challenge” and get an old dog to do one more old trick.

We can embrace the peril of telling higher-ups when whatever they want to say or do isn’t relevant or even appropriate anymore, and propose novel, bold ways to help them to engage with their stakeholders. Or we can hunker down as our employers and clients slash budgets and activities that they never appreciated as core to the success of the enterprise.

We can agree to go along with things that we know won’t work, or just aren’t true, or we can hope we can get back to the way things used to be.

I, for one, don’t think those old days are coming back because they never really existed. We were told they did, and a happy go-along economy let us enjoy the pretense.

It also supported our budgets and, judging from this story in PRWeek earlier today, those budgets are getting slashed.

Public relations professionals shouldn’t be beholden to the nonsense of integrated branding and marketing because we serve a different, higher function: We should be the thoughtful, moral, and inspired go-betweens who translate company behaviors for stakeholders who want to be informed and not just exploited.

It’s what we were taught was the right thing to do, and it’s how we’re going to assert and preserve budgets to do it going forward.

The opposite of doing the right thing isn’t doing things that are wrong: it’s going along with activities that aren’t particularly right or wrong, perhaps labelled with fluid and happily convenient definitions of what truth really means. It’s the pretense of relevance and usefulness and authenticity without the underlying substance.

It’s spin, not public relations.

So call it what you will…the swamp is draining, the veil is being lifted, our inner selves are getting a shot at seeing the light of a New Day. It’s up to us to decide whether or not we want to see today’s peril as tomorrow’s opportunity to define a new role and responsibility for our profession.

This is PR’s Moment of Truth.

[This essay originally appeared at Linkedin]

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Nikki Haley’s False Choice

The evils of socialism threaten the economic freedoms that are synonymous with freedom of speech, free exercise of liberty, and America’s other fundamental rights, according to a speech Nikki Haley made to the Hudson Institute late last month (as reported by George Will, and here’s the full transcript of her remarks).

She’s either mistaken, perhaps blinded by her sincere love of country and principle, or purposefully misleading (like her past references to a “Democrat leadership” that doesn’t exist by that name).

Or a little of both.

Her argument is a mishmosh of ideas but it basically boils down to a false choice: We can have capitalism, and thereby democracy, or socialism, which is really a step toward totalitarianism.

The choice is false on face value: Every democracy on earth embraces and mixes capitalism and socialism. All of them rely on markets in which goods and services as assigned values based on what society has decided to value.

Think about that for a moment. Capitalism doesn’t create anything, it’s a tool that allocates and assigns resources in ways that conform to what its participants value. Like baseball, it’s a rules-based game.

So there is no great global battle between capitalism and socialism…in fact, nearly all of the “socialist” countries Haley derides are simply democracies in which citizens have taken a more active role in asserting their values. Her labels aren’t helpful.

Why doesn’t Ambassador Haley want us to have a debate in America about how our democracy defines and uses our markets, and who gets to participate in making those decisions?

Let’s debate reality, not myths

Again, how capital is valued and where it is parked has no morality or purpose. Markets reflect the values of the voters who participate in those democracies, and allocate prices and purchases thereby. We voters get the outcomes we prefer, or tolerate, not those of some independent, agnostic third-party.

In fact, the idea that any market is truly free is laughable. Here in the US, our government has incentivized everything from nuclear power (Congress absolved utilities from any liability for accidents early in the industry’s history) and fossil fuels (via direct tax credits for oil, and letting coal companies avoid the expenses the market would impose on them for pollution), to real estate speculation (again, tax credits and brilliantly twisted accounting rules that assign value to things that are borrowed, not owned) and healthcare (if you don’t know this one by now you’ve not watched TV for the last decade).

Capitalism doesn’t drive democracy; it’s just a tool to express the changing proclivities of voters. It doesn’t answer questions of value for us, but rather puts our values to work.

That’s how we had functioning markets back in the days when black people were considered three-fifths of human beings and had participatory role other than as ownable property. It’s how markets worked just fine when women didn’t have the right to vote, people starved on the streets when they were too poor or old to care for themselves, and when companies spewed pollution that was considered “external” to any pricing implication.

I happen to agree with her argument that the declarations of “purpose” and capitalism intended to do things other than operate markets and run businesses are utterly silly (especially coming from unlikely places like the Business Roundtable and the zillionaires who gathered at Davos earlier this year).

The call to action for businesses, just like politics, should be for more transparency and honesty in how institutions communicate with their communities of buyers, employers, vendors, etc. If Company X’s stakeholders want it to reduce carbon emissions and sacrifice Y% of profits to do it, then have at it; similarly, if Company Y wants to pollute and its shareholders think it’s a great idea, the market should accurately reflect the cost of those behaviors and price the business accordingly. Everything else is marketing nonsense and, worse, often a lie.

But she looses me with her unfailing belief that some magic of capitalism has or will do it for us.

We need more democracy, not less

Capitalism doesn’t lift people up, democracy does when it evolves and, most importantly, when it involves its citizens.

Only ours has resisted that evolution, evidenced most blatantly by the way her party’s leader almost single-handedly chooses which industries he favors (giving bailouts to farmers because they voted for him), punishes states that he dislikes (like making life difficult for California and New York), cherry picks the companies his government should reward (i.e. contracts for Microsoft over Amazon because he doesn’t like negative coverage from Bezos’ Washington Post), and allows his family to manage for-profit businesses while they maintain direct and constant access to the Oval Office.

More broadly, states in which her party has governing control have been purging voters and making voting harder for those who remain in a cynical effort to keep people out of the political process.

There’s a word for a government that does these types of things — totalitarian, or kleptocratic dictatorship maybe — but like I said earlier, labels aren’t helpful.

Nor is blathering about the myth that every American can overcome any obstacle if they’re plucky enough; in fact, it’s a kick in the shins to millions of Americans who are born facing obstacles they cannot change, like their race or gender orientation, and markets that are seem almost purposefully structured to impede their success. People aren’t free to compete when they are saddled with unavoidable student debt or can’t afford to work as summer interns without pay. Markets aren’t competitive when access to capital is determined by social status more than the quality of ideas.

Nobody in our country is free to realize his or her dreams when some of us live in communities starved of basic social services and the necessities of living (the shocking large number of places without access to healthy drinking water is unacceptable).

Horatio Alger platitudes about failure as the result of some personal moral defect is, well, that kick in the shins.

We have a duty — and incentive — to provide every citizen a real chance to realize their potential; deciding what level of protections and help doing that requires is not a conversation about capitalism or socialism, but of what it means to be an American.

We can and should make markets better.

Some intellectual honesty on the topic would be helpful, but there’s little of that in Ambassador Haley’s threats that the slightest suggestion of “socialism” will crush the Americans’ individualism and personal initiative while sending us down the road hewn by Venezuela and the Soviet Union.

Governing policies aren’t gateway drugs, they’re agreements between voters on what matters to them.

Our electorate has been constantly growing and changing ever since our country was founded, and the issues that matter to us have changing accordingly. The outcomes of spirited and sometimes violent debate have been each generations’ statement of its shared vision of the promise of our country.

Our capitalist markets serve those promises.

Ambassador Haley and her political allies should encourage debate, not present a false choice that is intended to distract and then stifle the conversation.

PS: It’s Democratic Party, unless she wants to rename the Republic Party, too. Or is that another false choice?

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Indulging AI

Microsoft and IBM have signed the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” pledging to the Vatican that their AI will protect the planet and its people.

History is filled with secular leaders cutting such deals in exchange for the Church’s sanction for fighting a war newly deemed “holy,” or sometimes simply its benign disregard when said leaders’ actions came nowhere near qualifying for such a description. 

None of these agreements are binding, of course. Circumstances change, indulgences are recalculated, and yesterday’s blessed sons and daughters become tomorrow’s apostates.

The only mitigating factor is a signatory’s fear of eternal damnation (though that, too, has been negotiable).

So what will come of the resolution?

Microsoft and IBM will be bound to “safeguard the rights of all humankind” and ascribe to a “duty of explanation” so we peasants understand not only the function of AI algorithms but their purpose and objectivies,” according to a story in the Financial Times.

In exchange, their crusades to invent AI are hereby blessed.

I’ve come to believe that corporations of all stripes need a C-suiter in charge of ethics and morality; a Chief Morality Officer who functions like a priest or rabbi, providing operational leadership with perspectives on the implications of their decisions beyond the pale of material measures. 

Our newfound love of “purpose” in corporate behavior makes such a position all the more relevant, though I don’t think it should be filled by some glorified marketer or management consultant who only speaks to the canon of consumer trend research. Companies need fewer mission statements and communications strategies, and more real-time interpretive insights into what their behaviors mean to people and the planet.

Similarly, I don’t see this position having any enforcement authority, so less Spanish Inquisition and more kindly parish priest who helps families work though the challenges of daily life.

There’s a broad chasm between the Rome Call for AI Ethics and their implementation, and without establishing any sort of translation or application mechanism within the companies its realization will be left to press releases and other “thought leadership” about its successes. They’re not really “bound” to do anything, contrary to the language of the document.

Any failures to embrace it will doom the companies to hell, of course, so that’ll be some consolation.

[This essay originally appeared at DaisyDaisy]