Truth and Consequences

Watching the Democratic Convention a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of the thin line between promotion and hype.

This is not a partisan blog. If I sound like I might be about to pick on the Democrats, it’s only because their situation got me thinking. Consider. They are the party of the incumbent president at a time when there’s only one thing everyone seems to agree on: the economy is in a bad way. Who started it, what was done about it vs. what should have been done about it, whether we are better or worse off than we were four years ago—all that is open to debate. But that we are in an economic morass, with no easy answers in sight, is surely a given.

Combine this reality with the fact that the only real remaining functions of a modern party convention are to ignite passion in the base and perhaps sway a few undecided voters. What’s an incumbent party to do? Somehow the Democratic party had to demonstrate they take the situation seriously, while at the same time conveying an upbeat, rosy picture of how things stand. Demonstrating you take a problem seriously, without actually admitting there’s a problem, is not an easy thing to do.

(John McCain faced this situation four years ago—almost to the day. As the economy avalanched downward, he went for the optimistic view, announcing: “The fundamentals of our economy are sound.” Instead of boosting morale, it made him sound thoroughly out of touch—and the rest is history.)

Why am I suddenly writing about politics? I’m not, of course, I’m writing about communicating. McCain last time, and Obama this time, have had to walk the same fine line many a corporate internal communicator has to walk: fostering pride and boosting morale without losing credibility. In other words, promoting, but not hyping. As these candidates have found, this is especially difficult when times are bad.

So how do you do it?

You’re honest without being a “Debbie Downer.” If you’re careful, honesty can even be upbeat. “Yes, we’re going through a rough patch right now. But here’s what we’ve done to address it so far. Look how far we’ve come! Stick with us and see how much further we can go!”

Actually, the fact-checkers tell us neither party’s convention speeches would win a prize for accuracy. Apparently, politicians don’t care and neither do many of the American people. But I wouldn’t try this trick with employees. When it comes to their jobs, people are going to both know and care when you fiddle with the facts.

You’re careful of context. Some pundits have suggested that Obama’s convention speech was slightly toned down because he had a heads-up that the jobs numbers due to be released the next day were not going to be as strong as expected.

Similarly, be careful not to break the news that there are going to be lay-offs right next to a feature story on “what employees tell us they love most about working here.”

You muster your facts. Bill Clinton is a great speaker, but it wasn’t just his performance that caused so many to label his speech among the highlights of the convention. He used hard data (or as hard as politically-motivated data can get) to tick off, one by one, the ways things have improved over the last four years.

What’s the good news you can share? What can you remind employees about how your benefits, compensation, record of lay-offs, culture or working conditions stack up against competitors? What have you enhanced lately—or refrained from cutting back on? Remember, this has to be fact-based though—simply reminding employees that you’ve won a “great place to work” award, for example, could backfire in hard times.

You encourage ideas and input—but only if you are going to take them seriously. What’s one of the most famous and often-quoted speeches in modern political history? JFK’s inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Sure enough, Obama echoed this in his convention speech: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating work of self-government.”

People don’t want to feel powerless in the face of bad news. Promote a “we’re all in this together” spirit by asking for suggestions and feedback about whatever problems your organization faces. Internal social media platforms (moderated but not whitewashed) are an excellent forum for this, especially if you can get senior leadership involved.

What are some ways you’ve walked the line between promotion and hype? Share your ideas with a comment below!

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