Digital natives are a million times more media savvy and tech literate than most CEOs.
They’ve seen reality TV stars transform into celebrities and watched their friends become instafamous.
They understand how to manipulate media, so they’re not easily manipulated themselves.
As a result, the practice of explaining the gap between what companies say and do has become more challenging than ever.
This is both a challenge and an opportunity.
The Holy Fool
When what you hear and what you see are out of whack, it breeds distrust and makes you mad.
“In Russian literature there is an archetype called…the “Holy Fool.” The Holy Fool is a social misfit — eccentric, off-putting, sometimes even crazy — who nonetheless has access to the truth,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in his new book Talking to Strangers.
In Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, centered on a fictitious morning news program, Reese Witherspoon’s character is a truth seeker willing to ignore her handlers and blurt out inconvenient truths on live television. And for speaking the truth, she’s a hero.
Remember the emperor’s new clothes? Unless you’re a little kid, it’s risky to blow the whistle on the king for parading around naked. You could be ostracized by our community, ejected from your tribe or fired from your job.
Edward Snowden was exiled to Moscow for blowing the whistle on the National Security Administration’s unlawful, global invasion of privacy operation. Some call him as a hero. But the US has charged him with committing espionage, and he can never come home again. And it’s real cold over there.
And just last month, in a bizarre twist of fate, Fox Corp. executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch played the Holy Fool when he said, “Look, I think unfortunately in this country, there is less and less civil debate, and I think we’re all poorer for it.”
The irony is Murdoch’s Fox News Network has turned sowing the seeds of discontent between conservatives and liberals into a business model, so he’s lamenting a problem his company profits from.
His message and methods are out of balance, so his comment doesn’t improve what people think about Fox Corp. It just makes him look out of touch, and pisses people off.
Outcomes, not Outputs
In 2015, the public relations industry released the Barcelona Principles, guidelines for measuring results of PR campaigns. In it, they said outcomes rather than outputs are a better indicator of success.
For example, rather than soft metrics like news media impressions, retweets and likes, they advocated measuring the impact a campaign has on key audiences, and any specific actions they take.
It makes sense.
Instead of measuring how far and wide a message travels, measuring what people do as a result of what companies say is more honest way to assess the value of a PR campaign.
Think about it.
Well intentioned corporate social responsibility programs addressing issues such as climate change, fair trade and charitable contributions may generate a heap of positive news coverage for their corporate sponsors, but how do these efforts impact global warming, sustainable development and social well-being?
If the long term objective is changing the outcome and not just short term window dressing, one would have to conclude corporate social responsibility has, for the most part, failed.
That’s not to say there haven’t been wins. But despite all the hoopla, climate change, poverty, access to healthcare and racial conflict remain the major challenges of our time.
Despite soaring homelessness, employers lobbied the Republican-controlled Senate to reject a $15 national minimum wage bill that was approved by the House. And ride sharing companies continue to lobby to keep drivers classified as independant contractors to avoid paying benefits and payroll taxes.
It’s one thing to say you’re a good corporate citizen by making charitable contributions to those in need.
It’s another thing to actually pay your employees a living wage.
Corporations are designed to generate profits for shareholders and avoid behaviors that fail to maximize them. They’re doing what they’re supposed to.
So why hide behind a corporate communications smoke screen that’s out of whack with reality and only makes you look worse?
“It is time to recognize that most market failures can only be solved by governments and multilateral agreements, and progressives need to redirect activist pressure appropriately,” writes Aaron Chatterji, professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
Higher education is straight up.
Tell It Like It Is
Here’s a radical idea. What if instead of making excuses, companies strategically told the truth?
For example, what if an oil company’s communication goals were building trust, instead of misleading, the public?
Instead of making ridiculous statements about whether or not climate change is real, what if an oil company made purposeful use of communications planning and said something like this:
We refine crude into gasoline so you can get around.
We know cars create emissions and we know emissions build up in the atmosphere, trapping heat from escaping and raising the global temperature.
Our competitors won’t admit that to you.
But we’re going to tell it like it is, because we know you know anyways and we’re not going to insult your intelligence by telling you lies.
Yes, we’re a fossil fuel company, and yes we sell automotive fuel. That’s our business. It’s what we’re set up to do.
We employ a lot of people doing it, and we power most vehicle transportation on this planet.
If that were to stop overnight, most people’s ability to get around and travel would essentially stop.
Without a way to get around, suburbs would become inviable.
People outside major metros would be unable to get to work, the grocery store, the doctor, school, the game, piano lessons, soccer practice and on and on.
It’s not just an inconvenient truth.
It would mean changing the way you live. And frankly, it’s not our place as a company, to make that decision for you.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t make that decision for yourself, if you want.
That’s your choice, as a consumer, investor and voter.
Our obligation is to serve our customers, employees and shareholders. If I stop doing that, I’ll be fired and replaced by someone who will.
That’s the reality. I understand if that upsets you.
But may I suggest that if you really want to see change, you need to reduce your dependency on fossil fuel, because as long as there’s a profitable marketplace for gasoline, companies will continue to serve it.
If you’re an investor and you can’t stomach this, you may want to consider divesting from oil and gas.
But if you genuinely what to bring about change, the choice is much more yours than ours.
In the meantime, please understand that we’re doing what we’re set up to do, which is generate profits by extracting, refining and delivering fossil fuel to the global marketplace.
And no one person has the power to change the direction of our company. So if you want to see it changed, you know how to change it.This is hypothetical. No one actually said this. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if they did?
A Holy Fool communications strategy might not be so foolish after all.
People don’t have to like the business you’re in, but at least they’ll respect you for being honest and understand the challenges you face.
It’s not like anyone is going to be surprised by a statement like this. The C-suite maybe, but not the public.
Instead of ginning-up far-fetched explanations which everyone knows are BS, wouldn’t it be nice if the term strategic meant telling the truth?
Who can blame a company for trying to fulfill its mission, or for making shrewd decisions so they can lower their prices, increase revenue and deliver value to shareholders?
The imbalance in external communications between what companies say and what they do is driven by conflicts between what customers, employees and shareholders.
When the head of the network in The Morning Show tells the news chief to fire Witherspoon’s character for sharing divisive remarks on-air that could ruffle the feathers of advertising media, the news chief responds by reminding him that ratings will bring them back. Advertisers are challenged to put ethics before revenue as well.
Just as Witherspoon’s character is rewarded for her willingness to speak the truth, it is time for CEOs to but on their big boy pants on and let communications professionals plainly acknowledge their inability to be all things to all people.
Today’s social media savvy, tech literate public can handle it.