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

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