In this Post-Trust Era, Credibility is Everything
Despite the fact that we’re in an age of doubt, skepticism and mistrust, corporate-speak still rules.
It’s amazing that big companies often seem tone-deaf in their routine communications with customers and other stakeholders. Sure, there’s the eternal specter of SOX compliance — adhering to the rules set forth by the corporate governance standards dictated by the Sarbanes Oxley Law — but that doesn’t preclude effective human communication without bluster, artifice or obfuscation. The big problem is that we’re still living between two realities; as savvy as some managers are about the new world of truth and transparency, there’s still a strong gravitational pull that draws them back toward the old-school happy-talk they once relied upon.
But Maslansky et al have put together a very useful book that explains how and why we need to communicate differently in what they call our post-trust era. Credibility is all-important. But it’s not enough to merely believe what you are saying or to fake it convincingly. You have to be real. Really real. To be credible, Maslansky says, you must be personal, plainspoken, positive and plausible. He writes: “The fastest way to lose a skeptic is to make your message sound like fine print reads. If you want to build trust, you have to communicate as you would to someone you trust, with less corporate speak and more authentic language.”
He cites cases like Coca Cola’s European problems of a few years back, when 200 people fell ill and a batch was suspected of being tainted. Coke CEO M. Douglas Ivester spoke effectively and humbly about the problem, which Maslansky compared and contrasted with the words of AIG CEO Edward Liddy who appeared before a Congressional committee, attempting to justify the large bonuses awarded to its employees. Ivester acknowledged the severity of the situation and used words that conveyed trust and responsibility. Liddy spoke more generally and tried to explain and excuse things rather than apologize for the unpardonable and controversial use of government funds.
Throughout, there’s good advice for dealing with all manner of situations, including crises and emergencies when a firm’s reputation can be easily broken or burnished. Context is as important as content, and Maslansky does a solid job of reminding readers that it’s not all about them, but their audience. Their needs, fears, desires and other emotions determine how a message is perceived and, more importantly, acted upon.
Maslansky is president and CEO of a communications group he runs with the skeevy Frank Luntz, the propagandist who attempted to rename estate taxes “death taxes,” came up with the talking points for the Republican/Tea Party attacks on healthcare and financial reform and was one of the brains behind Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994. You’ve probably seen Luntz amid the other talking heads on the Sunday chat shows and the pseudo-news channels. Fortunately little, if any, of the party line permeates the text, yet one wonders how Maslansky’s call for honesty and authenticity jibes with his company’s daily doings.