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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Intelligent PR is never propaganda.

Communicators spend a lot of time working on getting the message right. To an extent that is a good thing. For in the day-to-day of organizational life, the message can sometimes get lost in the weeds. It is important to align and focus everyone, from leaders on down, on communicating what matters most.

 

When it comes to the brand, there is nothing more important than communication. “Build it and they will come” is bogus. You’ve got to say the right thing, at the right time, just to build buzz. And then protect your buzz from a blooper caught on Facebook that can bring you down. Caution is natural, necessary and appropriate.

 

But despite all this, regardless of the benefits of coordinated messaging, most brands don’t know how to use a brand playbook well. They either follow it too religiously (“Have I provided you excellent customer service today?”); implement it incorrectly (“Qwikster”); or ignore it altogether and just make things up as they go along (Sears).

 

Branding is confusing to a lot of people. But when it comes to brand communication, only one rule, if broken, can destroy you: Never, never peddle propaganda. You can openly:

 

* sell a fantasy (Ralph Lauren, Porsche)

 

* create community (Facebook, Harley-Davidson)

 

* offer some objective functional advantage (OXO, Dyson, Wal-Mart)

 

But you can never, ever lie or mislead or manipulate to make your case. And that is where too many brand leaders eventually fall into a trap made of their own success. They start to think that if they say enough things that other people want to hear, they will generate positive news coverage, and this will render them successful.

 

The road to propaganda is paved with public opinion polls. If the leader is strong enough to resist them initially, eventually it gets harder and harder to do so.

 

I believe that leaders are made more than they are born. That somewhere along the path of painful life, they make a discovery of their inner North Star – and of the compass G-d gave them to find it.

 

The leadership capacity gets them to a point, which is positive. Yet when they reach a certain level of leadership success, paradoxically, they begin to get insulated from the compass. They get swamped with advisers, briefings, talking points, media coaches, teleprompters, photo shoots, wardrobe consultants. They start attending executive seminars where all they see are other executives. They live by “minute-by-minute” schedules where every interaction is scripted.

 

When you spend so much time overthinking your every word, you stop being yourself. The self that your audience wants. The self that they are paying money for. The brand that they have invested in.

 

I was reminded of this today when I watched the President addressing the United Nations General Assembly. (Full disclosure and disclaimer: I work for the government but all opinions are my own. Additionally, this is a blog about communication principles and not a political commentary or endorsement.)

 

As I watched the President speak, I knew that I was watching an expression of authenticity. It was the President on his way toward the North Star.

 

Was it a coincidence that he used words relating to honesty quite a bit, as he stressed America’s commitment to “a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine”?

 

“Let’s be honest with ourselves….a small country of less than eight million people (Israel) look out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map. The Jewish people carry…fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. Israel deserves recognition….and friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth.”

 

There it was. As they say, fair and balanced. And when the President spoke his own truth, I found that I trusted what he was saying, and I wanted to watch more.

 

In the end, the President of the United States is not only the Commander in Chief. He or she is also the Chief Communicator. And we look to them to communicate American values of fairness, freedom, democracy and the right to self-defense when necessary. Before the entire world when called for.

 

When I watched that clip I sat back in my chair, speechless. On every level – as an American, as a Jew, as a humanist who really and truly wants peace. As a communicator, too. Because the President today reinforced what is for me the cardinal principal of public relations, a principle I know to be real and true:

 

Intelligent PR is never propaganda.