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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Communicators: You Can't Afford To Hold Your Nose

Butlerandtray

There is a photo of me as a 10-year-old that I both love and hate.

 

Do you have one of those?

 

It shows a happy girl swinging on a tire suspended from a tree. With a very bad perm, uncool glasses, and teeth practically screaming for the orthodontist.

 

I have a lot of good memories from that time. I went to a sleep-away camp where my mom was the nurse. And much like Piper happily trails Sarah Palin on her national bus tour, I followed my mom rather than hang out with the kids.

 

The air at camp was good. We ate breakfast in the big social hall. Huge wooden building. Big rough-hewn tables slapped with platefuls and platefuls of food. The air made me hungry, and I enjoyed the benefits of a kid’s speedy metabolism.

 

Every day I would devise a plan of escape from my snotty Long Island bunk counselors. I would sneak back out the side door of the dining hall to the infirmary, to watch the happenings at the daily “sick hour.” From 9-10 a.m., all aches and pains (physical and emotional) were dealt with one after the other. All sizes of Band-Aids dispensed.

 

There was a long padded brown plastic bench that served as an all-purpose examination table. I liked to sit there and swing my legs off the edge and listen. (The walls respected no concept of patient privacy in those days, and kids weren’t considered qualified listeners anyway.) I would go to the little fridge and crack open a can of Diet Pepsi.

 

Kid after kid came in. As did the counselors. I’m not pretending I remember what they said. Hey – I was 10! But I do remember the things my mom said. As they say, she didn’t play games – my mom got straight to the point – no matter how distasteful. Abrupt but caring, she was an early version of “House”:

 

“How did you get that?”

 

“What did you do?”

 

“Get real, OK?”

 

“I can’t help you if you’re gonna lie.”

 

Even with me she was always like that:

 

“What’s wrong? Spit it out there. I can see it in your eyes.”

 

You could try to look away and deny it. But she never let up till you spilled it. In fact she would get mad and stomp around the house till you came clean.

 

Being a communicator is SO very much the same. In fact it’s EXACTLY like being a doctor or a nurse of the organization, of its leaders. You have to ask, know or guess every little thing you can if you want to get to the truth. Because only the truth can unleash real communication that has any impact.

 

And only the truth can help you decide when it’s time to postpone communication till a later time. If ever.

 

I am reminded of all this by the current fascination with a tweet that definitely was tweeted, but is disputed in terms of who was the tweeter. When the media tries to get answers they get stuff like this (my favorite word to describe it is “cringeworthy”):

 

“How about you ask the questions, and I’ll give the answers. OK?”

 

“OK. Then answer the question.”

 

“No. Refer to my statements.”

 

“Why won’t you answer the question?”

 

“Jackass.”

 

Clearly, a mishandled situation.

 

I don’t know what happened and I don’t really care. That’s outside my scope.

 

What concerns me is how a public figure ends up screwing up so badly. Creating hell out of not only a career, but probably also a marriage.

 

Everybody is saying that the lying is the issue. In the age of social media, it’s the Original Sin to bob and weave and spin complicated words and get superior and all. (Cursing at a reporter is unheard of, yet interesting.)

 

Clearly that is one lesson. Confess, confess, confess. Admit it. It’s OK. The other day Eric Schmidt admitted that he should’ve anticipated the threat from Facebook. This from a head of Google, probably the top brand in the world? I was shocked at the honesty.

 

Mark Zuckerberg, for his part, admitted that his “learning project” for this year was to, essentially, shecht (Yiddish-butcher) animals and only eat things that he had personally slayed. I thought that was an absolutely grotesque goal. But he came right out and said it. Imagine if he had lied and said, “I never cut the heads off chickens…you must have confused me with somebody else.” In the end I just forgot about it.

 

Some might say that leaders err in running to lawyers rather than communication consultants. To that I simply cry “B.S.” If something as bad as that happens, you better have a lawyer working hand-in-hand with the crisis communication specialist.

 

Perhaps, one could argue, we should learn to develop advanced media capabilities in the era of tweets, blogs, Facebook and viral videos. Learn when to react and when to stand down. When to confront the press, how to redirect a message, and so on. OK. A hashtag does not an expert make.

 

But I see an issue much more fundamental than that.

 

Basically, the communicators that surround senior leaders have a hard time looking at the equivalent of fish guts.

 

This isn’t about the leader having “issues” with honesty or directness. It’s about the communicators that serve them.

 

The truth is, a lot of people just can’t stand the sight of blood, especially blood hemorraging. They turn their eyes away. They don’t want to believe the worst, they don’t want to think about the worst, they are uncomfortable envisioning the worst, and so their mind completely clouds them to the unpleasant possibilities.

 

To get medical about it again - ever watch Grey’s Anatomy? The character of the surgeon who is also a vet? When crises occur, he doesn’t give a damn about protocol. He throws the stuff in the room around, takes supplies where he can get them, rips the curtains off the wall to make a tourniquet – anything to save the patient.

 

How many communicators have that attitude about their bosses? About their organizations?

 

Not the hell too many.

 

Great communication isn’t just about learning the from-the-trenches survival skills. Anyone can do that.

 

Or overcoming your fear of telling the truth. That fear turns to adrenalin, fast.

 

Rather, it’s about properly understanding what the real nature of your job is. What you were hired to do.

 

For $40,000 a year you can string a few sentences together. That’s not particularly brilliant.

 

What your job is, is to make the people in the lines of business talk to you in a real way about what’s going on.

 

To force them to give you the truth.

 

So that you can get the alcohol out, bleed the wound, and apply the Band-Aid.

 

They may cry like babies or curse like dogs as the initial sting hits them.

 

But it’s a heck of a lot better for the screaming to happen inside the office, than outside in front of the TV cameras.

 

Just like being a doctor, being a communicator is a sacred trust.

 

Serve people who have honor, and then honor them with your very best.

 

Good luck!


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Photo source here.