Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

Amid the news of RBC swapping a handful of its Canadian IT staff for foreign workers, I zeroed in on a post about the bank trying to use crafty “PR-speak” to recover.  The challenge is, few are buying it. Quotes from one of the soon-to-be-replaced employees and resulting news stories had carried the story too far by the time RBC’s CEO spoke of the bank’s “very high priority on Canadian jobs” a couple of days later.

SpinningEdReality is a company’s brand is determined by what others say about it, not the image it attempts to create for itself.  The most brilliant communication is futile when the message is not reflected in the company’s actions.

What may come as a surprise to some is corporate communicators know you’re only as a good as the organization you represent. Simply “spinning” with minimal action to support your message is exhausting and soul-sucking.

Fortunately, those in corporate communication roles have a wide-angle view across the organization to foresee issues and a trained sixth sense to identify and appeal to their stakeholders’ self-interests. This often presents a huge opportunity for communicators to build a business case and steer the company to the “ethical right.”

One way is focusing on this “brand” ideal that marketers and communicators strive to nurture and sustain and how it actually translates into the tangible “goodwill” line in a merger or acquisition. Another way is to re-frame the scenario to highlight long-term threats, as Toby Heaps, CEO and Publisher, Corporate Knights did in a CBC interview when he cited the economic drain of chronic unemployment.

Many astute communicators and PR professionals serve as the company’s conscience by using these and other angles to push for ethical actions based on good business sense, which resonates with decision-makers. In doing so, they also strengthen the corporate message and its impact.

I’ve seen this approach used to persuade decision-makers to take ethical steps, such as restoring socially conscious programs, firing dishonest vendors and treating exiting employees as fairly as possible. Mark Schumann, a former IABC Chair, once referred to this role as being the “organization’s conscience and protector of the corporate soul.” When performed effectively, it’s likely averted many so-called “PR disasters.”

Unfortunately, this approach often fails in the first attempt or the PR team is alerted too late. Still, I suspect there are communicators, possibly in a bank somewhere, who continue to tenaciously pursue ethical practices that really “walk the talk.”

Although it’s usually below the radar, this too is PR and the polar opposite of soulless spinning.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of this in your work?

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Should Curbing Violence Start with Words?

This summer, we’ve been horrified by tragic mass shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado.  Closer to home, several senseless gunfire incidents have jolted Toronto. We shake our heads, grieve for the victims and then move back to business.

The problem is business, particularly marketing, often means talking about the new killer app, killer collection or even killer strategies, which if executed well, will generate multiple hits and create die-hard fans. Sometimes we reduce the impact to just assault with a genteel alternative, such as “kick-ass,” as in kick-ass campaign but it’s still hostile. And as the scope widens, we talk about “ad wars” and “annihilating the competition.”  Similarly when a firm’s reputation is on the line, we set-up a “war room.”

I don’t think this practice is exclusive to English.  I once discovered “blood bath” and other violent terms peppered throughout business copy I was editing for an Asian client.  As blood bath didn’t suit North American business conventions, I substituted with more precise terms to describe the urgency and high stakes. (The client described my editing as “making it more polite.”)

Sure business is competitive and a successful approach stands out and is often extreme but must it be aligned with murder or violence?

More importantly: what’s the fallout of violent rhetoric?  In the wake of the 2011 Tuscan shootings, Rev. Barbara Kaufmann covered this practice in a Huffington Post article and how it is often subtly or subliminally used in marketing to prompt action or even aggression.  She also cited Deborah Schaffer, a Montana State University professor who has studied inflammatory and prejudicial speech since the nineties and states that “language can be used to stir up and manipulate emotions…sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.”

Am I reading more into the marketing language we frequently use with no ill intentions? Maybe. But in a world where we are starting to recognize how bullying scars a child for life (or worse) and unprovoked shootings appear to be rising, maybe it’s time we took violence out of the marketing vernacular.

An IABC colleague once pondered different ways say awesome. Maybe it’s time to take this further and seek alternatives to “the killer approach.” What about scratching the surface with….

  • the Ultimate, Ideal, Exemplary or Definitive or ….versus the killer app, collection or strategy?
  • Opportunities, References, Exposure points or …. versus earned media hits?
  • Extreme, Lifelong, Enduring, Resolute or …. versus die-hard fans?
  • Insight hub, Pulse Room, Information Centre or …. versus war room?

What alternatives can you suggest? Where else can we address violence in marketing lingo?

Did “Thank You” Get Archived?

 In recent years, I’ve noticed a growing scarcity of the phrase “thank you,” particularly between internal stakeholders and peers.  Sure we thank our customers/clients and external influencers  but when it comes to employees or volunteers, there seems to be a top-down belief that verbal gratitude for “doing your job” is irrelevant.This may, in part, be reflected in Ceridian Canada’s recent Pulse of Talent survey which found 44 per cent of respondents are either not satisfied (22 per cent) or indifferent (22 per cent) with the level of recognition they currently receive at work.

In some cases, I think this tendency stems from litigation-weary executives, who cynically lump “thank-you” in the same group as “sorry” — that is, a cause for suspicion or softening of their authority.  Case in point was an executive who forced me to justify why I wanted a “thank you” line at the end a letter asking franchisees to take extra steps to manage a vendor challenge (and protect the corporate brand). Similarly, I heard of a hospital VP forbidden by her CEO to thank staff for investing extensive effort to prepare for a stringent accreditation process.

Sadly, thanks is often replaced by citing tiny shortfalls of a job that’s generally well done and may even exceed objectives. Alternatively, there are those who grill employees (or even volunteers) in meetings but quietly thank them behind closed doors.

I’m not sure when this started. Maybe a time crunched world with many people agitated by email acknowledgments filling their in boxes prompted “thank you’s” dismissal? For some, I think there’s a tendency just to cut to the chase with “no time for pleasantries.”

But is that all “thank you” is? Hardly.

For one, isn’t it just common courtesy and good manners? Oddly enough though, a quick Google search for articles linking business etiquette with “thank you” came up blank.

There is however evidence that it makes good business sense.

O. C. Tanner built its organization around “The Carrot Principle” and data demonstrating that the most successful managers provide their employees with frequent and effective recognition.  They also use it to engage people, retain talent and accelerate performance.

Companies like this demonstrate the value of appreciation in a formal format but what about in casual exchanges?

2010 study (by Grant and Gino) published in the Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology found that people who received thank you emails after helping a stranger with a cover letter, were 66 per cent more likely to help this person again with a similar task because “they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they’d been thanked.”  This sentiment had a lingering effect as 55 per cent of the same individuals responded to a similar call for help, from a different person, the next day.

Is it not then in an organization’s best interest to boost morale and ongoing engagement with a sincere “thank you” in meetings and correspondence?

Is my experience isolated or did “thank you” get archived? If so, here is one study to counter the skeptics and back up the value of gratitude. (Please tell me if you know of more.) With them, maybe we can help reverse this potential trend and in doing so, maintain and build support among our internal teams and our most vital ambassadors. What do you think?