If you think the truth hurts, you DON’T want to feel it when something less than the truth takes a shot at you!
In my experience, most people get it. Honesty is, in fact, the best policy. Maximum disclosure, minimum delay is good. Liar liar pants on fire, not so good. Unfortunately experience strongly suggests that most businessfolk have a tendency to, um, believe their own press. Worse, some don’t wait for the press to buy their story before they start believing it!
I’m all in favor of a good story. And as a PR guy, I love nothing more than when the media accepts my client’s narrative. But I don’t write fiction for my clients. We never advise a client to make stuff up.
I know. People do it. I know people who do it.
Set aside the ethics of business communication for the moment. (That’s a whole other conversation!) What I’m talking about here and now doesn’t concern the final public message, but rather the relationship between client and consultant, and the effectiveness (or serious lack thereof) of a marketing message that doesn’t at the very least find its roots in the truth.
Nothing is more frustrating to me than when I ask a potential client to explain the problem (and there’s almost always a problem, or they wouldn’t call in the big guns, right?), only to be spun a carefully worded grammatically precise version of the situation. You’ve heard it all, I’m sure. My least-favorite board-room buzzword / CYA catchphrase is “the situation is by no means lost.” That’s just poly-speak for “we’re screwed but I’m not gonna be the one who says so.”
When that happens to me, particularly when that happens during an initial meeting, I signal to the gang on my side of the table to just let it go, continue our questioning, and try to circle back once we have some idea how critical the missing information might be. (And it’s always the most critical stuff, or somebody wouldn’t be trying to hide it, right?)
I once met with a potential retail client whose sales were declining at a startling 20-25% annually. They called us, hoping a fresh set of eyes might help them craft a new direction for their core products. I was already familiar with the product. (It’s a good product. I have one. Everybody should have one.) The problem was not the product.
Ten minutes into that first meeting, the problem was excruciatingly obvious. Company leadership had made a few bad calls. That happens to everyone, sooner or later, and is typically not the end of the world. But these guys were, for whatever reason, doubling down on the dumb.
We tried several different ways of getting to the root of the problem. But answer after answer to our fairly straight questions came back so full of doublespeak, jargon and flat-out mumbo-jumbo that I finally had to ask – politely – if they wouldn’t mind cutting the crap.
I looked at the reports they’d provided us, and noted that sales in the current period were off about 18%. The director, with a straight face, replied, “that’s about right for this time of year.”
These folks had become so used to losing so much money that an 18-percent quarterly loss was status-quo! Worse, they were so enamored with their own press copy that they couldn’t set aside the script long enough to discuss actual problems, let alone explore ways to correct those problems.
“Look,” I said. “I am not your customer. I am not a reporter for the Times. You don’t need to sell me anything. You asked us here to help you determine why your sales are slipping and see if…”
“Our sales aren’t slipping! Sure, they’ve been off a little, but things seem to be settling down now.”
So you can see where that conversation was going. We tried one last tactic to get their attention: their own numbers.
“Sir, you are losing, on average, one-fifth of your sales every year, and have done so for the past three years,” I said. “You have two serious problems, and the first one is that you don’t think you have a serious problem.”
I’ll be honest. We didn’t get that job. I left the meeting hoping we wouldn’t. We couldn’t help them. Sure, we could have taken their money, changed their slogan, bumped up their media buy, burned through what was left of their cash. I’m sure somebody did, but it wasn’t us.
The moral of this tragic tale is a simple one. Be honest. At least with yourself. The “bright side” isn’t a place to go. “Hope” isn’t a strategy. The truth is simply not visible when your head is planted six inches beneath the sand.