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I was pretty happy to read the dual press statements from Yahoo and Tumblr when they announced their partnership this week. I have to admit in recent months I’ve pretty well given up on press releases – a sterile, decaying art form that is seemingly impervious to innovation and improvement. It’s true that some companies have made their releases more social in recent years, even entertaining, but too often releases are formulaic, devoid of personality and cloaked in vague and trite legal jargon. In other words, they are usually boring, generic and lacking credibility.
In this sorry context come the above mentioned releases. First Yahoo. Right off the bat, you’ve got to give the Yahoo team kudos for featuring the elephant in the room right in their byline – we promise we won’t screw it up. Marisa Mayer’s comments about Tumblr and its CEO David Karp seem genuine and conversational – as if (lo and behold) the quote is actually real. She also acknowledges the obvious – that the two companies couldn’t be more different – but also makes a good case for how they can complement each other. A few other nice touches – the word awesome and an ironic exclamation point - help make the release not just credible, but worth reading. And though the release has some typical verbiage on opportunity and assets, the business case is presented in a way that makes sense.
The Tumblr statement is even more refreshing, and totally in keeping with the company’s smart, rebellious image. David Karp’s blog post is funny, sarcastic and ends with a disarming “F… yeah!” It’s also concise and hits the obvious concerns of his team right at the top. All this and not a legal term or ten-dollar word in sight.
Beyond the initial statements, both teams used their arsenal of social media platforms to get the word out and provide ongoing elaboration and commentary. In the process, they haven’t shied from some of the controversial aspects of the deal (notably Tumblr’s not so secret reputation as a hotbed of porn.)
The lesson here is not that companies need to make their press releases irreverent or informal, but they should remember their identity and their target audiences – which include employees and consumers, not just Wall Street heavies. In this case the tone of the statements seemed entirely appropriate. It helps that this transaction seems to fit with the strategy of the respective companies – Yahoo gets a new potential audience, a boost in buzz and some much-needed hip factor; while Tumblr keeps its independence while benefiting from the huge audience and finances of a large partner. Another point I’ve argued many times with peers and clients is that information that is important – notably in formal announcements like press releases that must be carefully crafted – doesn’t have to be serious or boring. Compelling content that is aligned with readers’ interests, lexicon and media habits is much more likely to be read and believed. Isn’t that the point of releases in the first place?
I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.
I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.
I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.
The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.
I read a headline in my local newspaper today about the list of 2010′s top lies according to the website Politifact.com – a national fact-checking website. The winner was the oft-repeated claim that President Obama’s health care overhaul was a “government takeover”. According to the Politifact researchers, this loaded phrase has no basis in fact and is, at best, a gross exaggeration. According to the reports, the messaging was developed by a political consultant and designed to foster opposition to the legislation.
Sadly, the loaded, misleading phrase apparently played an important role in shaping public opinion – and fostering widespread misunderstanding – about the health care plan. Republican leaders and pundits repeated the phrasing with almost obsessive regularity – following the old adage that if you say something often enough, people will eventually believe it. A number of public opinion polls suggest the attacks got traction with the public, and most observers believe the losses by Democrats in the November elections can be attributed primarily to negative views on the healthcare reforms. (FYI: Factcheck.org has also repeatedly debunked the government takeover claim.)
No matter their political convictions or opinions on healthcare reform, communication professionals should be disappointed by the apparent success of this dubious messaging. Yes, it was effective – at least in the short-term – as a provocative and simplistic sound-bite. And it certainly helped shape public opinion against the healthcare reforms – at least so far. But it also reinforced all the negative stereotypes of public relations as spin, fluff and disingenuous hype. I’ll allow that politics is a more polarized environment where truth is often vulnerable to simplistic political slogans, but the dramatic impact of the healthcare attacks is still cause for concern. Has truth actually become irrelevant in public discourse?
As communication professionals, we’re often required to help our clients or companies to influence public debate and garner positive media coverage – and ultimately help drive a strategic agenda. And we certainly do our best to present information through messaging that is resonant and palatable with the target audience. We even advocate the message repetition I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the fundamental principles of public relations – such as commitment to transparency, honesty and respect for your audience. That’s what drives long-term credibility and trust, and helps build positive brand or personal reputation. We see clues of the Pyrrhic healthcare victory in the political arena; though public opinion is firmly against the healthcare overhaul, Americans have very low levels of trust in their elected officials – including those who so harshly criticized the healthcare reforms. So the messengers pushing the government overhaul canard seem to have a credibility problem of their own.
Ultimately, as professionals we need to ask ourselves what we would do to win an election, promote a stock or help sell a product. I suggest that sticking close to the facts is a good place to start. With no ethical compass, we deserve all the criticism the industry gets.