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In recent weeks I’ve witnessed several instances of public figures using talking points, or planned messages, in ways that should make every PR professional cringe.
Perhaps the most visible example was the brouhaha surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, when Governor Pence appeared on talk shows to defend the proposed legislation – which was widely criticized for allowing, perhaps even encouraging, discrimination against the LGBT community. In one widely publicized interview, Pence methodically repeated his key talking points – including the widely debunked argument the Indiana RFRA was identical to a law passed by other states – even as the host provided detailed evidence to the contrary. To make matters worse, Pence repeatedly avoided answering a direct question about whether the law allowed discrimination against LGBT consumers, reverting back to stock messages that were not relevant. By most assessments, Pence did not fare well in the interview, yet his discredited talking points lived on even as the legislation was amended (despite Pence’s earlier claims to the contrary) to reflect the widespread criticism.
In fairness, this stubborn adherence to irrelevant or misleading talking points isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum. Last week US Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on criminal charges of bribery and corruption. The surprise wasn’t that Menendez pleaded not guilty, but that in his remarks he defiantly pronounced his innocence and defended his actions with arguments (and messages) that strained credulity given the scope and detail of the accusations. Undoubtedly, we will hear his script repeatedly as we wait for the legal process to unfold.
Like many communication professionals, I believe there is great value in proactively planning speaking points to position your argument (or product or policy) in the best possible light. I’ve trained my share of leaders on this practice. But there are several critical requirements to ensure this is done effectively, meaning the messages are relevant (in some way relate to the question and circumstance), supported by proof points and perceived as credible, or at least plausible and appropriate. It’s also important the messages be adaptable and evolve to reflect their resonance, or lack thereof, with observers. Worse case scenario, the audience or interviewer could disagree with your position, but not call into question your bona fides or integrity.
Unfortunately, the practice of talking points has become pervasive and perverted in recent years. Now it’s common practice for politicians, for example, to align on a set of partisan messages and repeat them with numbing frequency, notwithstanding the occasion or even the question. In the worse cases, these talking points are often misleading, if not outright fabrications; more slogans or aspirational headlines than information. What used to be shared as opinion or suggestion is now peddled as fact. The thinking appears to be that if you repeat something often enough – even if it’s not accurate or relevant – people will start to believe it.
Maybe the most surprising aspect of this is that the speakers appear oblivious to the fact their statements do not pass the sniff test. Witness the recent announcement by Senator Ted Cruz he was running for President. Cruz’ stump speech (ironically headlined with the theme of truth) is littered with sweeping, provocative claims that have been widely debunked, and not just by the obvious suspects on the other side of the partisan divide. Yet, Cruz appears happy to continue repeating his punch lines, presumably content that his target audience (conservative Republicans) is quite happy to believe in his worldview. My issue here isn’t with Cruz’s arguments or politics, but that he appears totally unconcerned about the widespread, repeated questions about the veracity of his statements. What me worry?
Like other industry observers, I suspect this neo-propaganda model of talking points owes something to the most infamous examples of intentional misinformation: the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of health hazards from smoking. Other industries – notably the oil and gas sector – have followed a similar model of incessant lobbying fueled by massive advertising and marketing, all scripted by carefully written narratives and slogans with a tenuous relationship to truth or public interest. Now politics seems to have fully embraced this campaign model, designed more to shape public policy and sway voters than to educate or foster dialogue.
The problem with this paradigm, I would argue, is that the cumulative impact of this disputed, polarized messaging is the eroding credibility and relevance of the process and the messages themselves. Does anybody really believe what the politicians are saying? Or does having evidence to back your messages even matter anymore? A number of recent surveys on low levels of trust for a wide range of sources – notably politicians, journalists and corporate leaders – suggests there is a serious credibility gap in public discourse.
The result of all this, I fear, is collateral damage for the reputation of the PR profession, already struggling with accusations of spin and ethical lapses. All communication pros should carefully consider their own actions in these situations. What are the values and principles that guide our counsel and behavior? I believe our profession needs to take a stronger stand with our clients or company leaders, and promote a more authentic, relevant and cogent messaging strategy that can stand up to objective scrutiny. In short, stand up for the truth.
A few weeks ago I spent time with an old friend who worked in a company that by all appearances was a dynamic, successful industry leader: steady profits, stable leadership, healthy prospects, and a supportive board of directors. But if you asked my friend, or likely many of his colleagues, the description of working at this company would be much less positive. In fact, many of them hate going to work, and they spoke of a palpable malaise inside the company. The reason: a detached CEO who is largely dismissive of communication and culture.
This anecdote brought to mind the old medieval adage that as the king goes, so goes the country. It’s pretty well accepted as a truism that CEO’s have a direct and enormous influence on their companies, of course. They direct and deploy workers in an organization much like a general in battle. But the twist in this story suggests that their impact goes beyond the most obvious elements (and requirements) of corporate success – such as organization, logistics, strategy and financial performance. A company (and leader) doing all the basic things right – at least according to the MBA playbook – can still be horrible workplace, with disenchanted and disengaged employees.
According to my friend, the CEO at his company has a blind spot when it comes to communicating with employees – grudgingly allowing only perfunctory, formal outreach and avoiding genuine, personal interaction as much as possible. Probing employees for ideas and opinions is limited to a typical annual “culture survey”, which apparently drives little discussion, response or change. Needless to say, convincing this CEO of potential investment or innovation in communication is a losing game.
The CEO also apparently sees little value in fostering a positive, distinctive workplace culture. Sure, the typical HR activities are in place – ostensibly to motivate and reward workers – but there is no leadership interest in truly exploring and improving worker morale and satisfaction. And the corporate identity is muted and generic, with little to inspire pride or discretionary effort. In other words, employees should do their jobs and be happy they have one. Since this company is located in a relatively small job market – with limited options for senior executives – there’s no immediate risk of an attrition of top talent. And with the company regularly hitting its numbers, the CEO sees no reason to change anything.
This anecdote raises some interesting questions for communication and HR professionals. Does it really matter if employees are happy at work? Is it important for a company to have a distinctive, engaging culture? Is the recruitment and retention of talent really an issue in smaller, stagnant job markets? And what is the ultimate metric for leadership and corporate success?
I propose the answers to these questions all revolve around the central issue of the core purpose of the company. Some would say that making money for shareholders and paying employees for good work is the baseline. I would argue that that viewpoint is shortsighted, and certainly not optimal for talented employees seeking a fulfilling career and perhaps even a higher purpose. In other words, employees don’t just need to know (and believe) what the company does, but what it stands for and what it hopes to achieve beyond driving profits. Without that deeper affinity and sense of purpose, most workers will remain steady (if unspectacular) performers and jump ship at the earliest chance.