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- 02.10.2011 | Wisdom of Unorthodox Communications
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- 01.01.2011 | Shrink Your Message to Nine Seconds?
Adjunct Professor, Public Relations and Communications Graduate Program,
Georgetown University, and
CEO, EnviroComm International
August 15, 2011
Frank Bruni in Sunday's New York Times makes an interesting comparison between politicians and aardvarks.
You can't expect a person running for office to put aside his talking points, Bruni says, because "that's like asking an aardvark to go easy on the ants. A species can't be denied its subsistence diet."
I wonder if we can't apply the same analogy to people running corporations. They are fed a steady diet of talking points by their counselors — let's call them CCOs — to be given to stakeholders, where the attempt is to create support, not entirely unlike the aim of people in politics trying to create support.
Here's the difference: politicians are keenly aware that every word that proceeds from their mouths or their message channels — some of them are at least bylined tweeters and bloggers — has to be consistent with every other word they've uttered. They understand that their stakeholders — potential voters — are keeping score, and that one false move, one uttered inaccuracy or inconsistency, one departure from the script, prepared by their counselors, will drop them in the polls and possibly in their jobs as office-holders.
They know that leadership is consistent, planned communication, and talking points are the essence of this.
This is their subsistence diet. This is how they share values with followers. This is how they don't confuse, break connections or shake pillars of trust.
Like the handlers of politicians, corporate communicators want their leaders to succeed. They understand that trust is built through consistent conditioning of followers. They know that stakeholders trust the leader who reassures them about the specific win-win value deal between the company and the stakeholder. That reassurance largely flows from information: the stakeholder or potential stakeholder tends to trust the CEO who says, or is quoted as saying, what the stakeholder has been trained to expect or hope to hear.
That message boils down to, "I care about you and here's what I or we, the company you trust, will do for you."
That is the subsistence diet of leaders and of believers in leaders.
And we know what can happen when a CEO or a politician goes off script in a sudden, contradictory way. The diet is blown and the tables are turned as the stakeholders starve the leader of necessary support.
What is the main problem in this theory — which I believe is actual and pragmatic — for CCOs?
Unlike trained professional successful politicians, a lot of CEOs don't want to stick to scripts. They don't want to sound or look like they are serving up taste-tested sound bites.
How many top executives do you know who are eager to go through media training? To take an hour or more to hammer out talking points, absorb them and stick to them in important contexts including quarterly analyst calls? To be so smart about the danger of off-the-cuff comments — not to mention off-the-wall e-mails or blogs or tweets — that he or she doesn't do it?
You'd think there would not be a CEO anywhere who would not know what happened after Hayward's haywire comments when he went off message during the BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
You'd assume there isn't a CEO — or a CCO certainly — who hasn't winced to see an executive get bashed at a congressional hearing because his talking points were not right or not enough or not used.
You have to know, as your kids and grandkids know, that everybody feeds forever on what's on YouTube (where Mr. Hayward's "my own life" gaffe continues to feed distrust of CEOs), much more than what you're able to place on TED (where Steve Job's Stanford 2005 speech, three stories from his personal life, is carefully scripted, feeding trust for Apple for several years).
My question — if I'm right in thinking that talking points and consistent messages are winning communication diets — is how does the CCO deal with all this, since the CCO is the expert in this part of the C-suite's accountability?
I know there's no one-size that fits all.
But it would be interesting — and I would certainly appreciate — to hear from some of you on this, to agree or to disagree (I keep learning!), and if you are comfortable doing it, sharing a case of success or lack of success on this topic — trust and talking points or, to use Bruni's metaphor, what happens when executives fall off their subsistence diet.
Bruce Harrison is an adjunct professor in the master's program at
Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He and Judith Muhlberger teach
courses in leadership communications and corporate crisis communications.
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