Friday, January 23, 2009

Is it truth or is it marketing?

While multitasking on Inauguration day — flipping among three TV networks' live event coverage, rotating among several news websites' coverage, turning to Google to supplement the occasional "I wonder if ..." or "I wonder what ..." trigger arising from the coverage, and working on a consulting project — one of those paths led me to an interesting guest commentary by Wynton Marsalis at

In general, the post concerns the role of culture in our society. But it is one comment in the midst of the piece that I'd like to talk about today. He says —

"At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude that it's hard to fathom. ... Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and truthful communication is supplanted by marketing."

That phrase — "truthful communication is supplanted by marketing" — is a stinger that should disturb everyone who communicates on behalf of any corporation, product, service, organization or cause. Here, in an articulate discussion of America's cultural roots (literature, poetry, music, dance, art), one of our nation's most respected cultural icons applies a comparison that, outside the marketing arena, requires no explanation.

All readers knew exactly what Marsalis meant. Professional marketers who read the piece almost certainly bristled. I wonder whether they recognized anything of themselves in the comment; many of them probably should have. I've been doing PR and marketing writing and campaigns for (gasp) more than 30 years, and I know that in more than a few instances truth was supplanted by marketing in my own work. As I've grown and become more seasoned, this dissonance gradually began to inform my work, and I now subject all my promotions to the "oh really?" challenge — does this proposition, claim, description really stand up to scrutiny? Is it defensible? Is it authentic?

All organizational communications — internal and external — is filtered by those who receive it based on their own experience and expectations, often cynical. And it's no wonder — we ourselves as professional communicators have driven people away, have too often made it impossible to believe that what we say can possibly have a thread of truth. Of course we're all proud of our companies, our products and services, our causes, and of course we reflect this in our communications.

However, if we don't filter our enthusiastic communication with a "oh really" or similar filter, it simply perpetuates the notion that "marketing" and "truthful communication" cannot possibly be the same. Surely this is not the legacy we want for our profession. And only we can change the perception.

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, January 16, 2009

A disturbing analogy

It occurred to me during one of my recent daily walks — while listening to the excellent audio book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (available at Amazon or downloadable at the iTunes store) by Seth Godin — that my primary rant about communication has direct application in our personal lives as well as in business. That rant, in case you've somehow missed it, is that communication — both internal and external — demands that you actually BE what you SAY you are.

Here's an example that may seem painfully familiar to many of my readers: online dating. How many of us have developed an online relationship with someone whose description of either their physical attributes or other characteristics turned out, after meeting them in person or even simply talking on the telephone, turned out to be shockingly misleading?

I'd guess that nearly anyone who's single and tech-savvy in the 21st century has had this experience — and I'm also guessing that you didn't like it. You felt disappointed at the very least and possibly even betrayed, angry, vengeful. Countless folks who perpetrated such false identities have been flamed across the internet in the past decade, demonstrating the power of the reaction felt by those who have been misled.

Even if it hasn't happened to you, I'm certain you're familiar with and can empathize with the experience.

So it shouldn't require a tremendous leap of imagination to transfer this illustration to the business environment. Does your organization promise more than it delivers? Once your customers have actually worked with you, would they still agree with the glowing phrases you used to characterized your organization while building the initial relationship? Does your website present you in one way while the reality is different in ways that would distress a prospective customer? Do you profess values you do not live?

This is the crux of my core belief: If you're painting yourself as handsome, tall, fit, 40, successful and interesting, but you show up at the first date disheveled, inarticulate, humorless, egocentric, unclean, and woefully out of shape and out of touch, will you get a second chance? What about your business image? Does it match reality?

If not, I earnestly suggest it's time to bring them into harmony. Why? Only by truly being what you say you are can you ever hope to succeed, either personally or professionally.

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic