Spin may be dead, but are business leaders using honest communication effectively?

Dan Ovsey | Aug 7, 2012

At the end of the day, the business leader has to determine what’s the biggest risk to the business — legal or reputation? If reputation is weighing heavily as a determinant then you’re going to be more open than you would normally, and you would take risks.

Jackie King has spent her career helping senior executives at some of the world’s biggest companies improve their internal and external communications, including those who find themselves in the midst of crisis. The Ottawa-based vice-president and group leader, Communications and national practice leader, Change & Internal Communications at Hill+Knowlton Strategies recently spoke with Dan Ovsey about the evolution of business communication, reconciling legal and image considerations and the death of spin. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: Do you feel that today’s business leaders are better communicators than they were 10 years ago?
A: What we’re seeing is the attempt to be more personal through video, and to be honest and transparent because the world is changing and if you’re not out there, then someone will start to define your story for you. Is everyone doing it perfect? No. Is there room for improvement? Yes. There are also considerations around legal and investor ramifications when communicating, especially during times of crisis.

Q: Those are difficult considerations to put aside. What’s your counsel to business leaders who need to strike a balance between legal ramifications and the need to be honest and transparent?
A: At the end of the day, the business leader has to determine what’s the biggest risk to the business — legal or reputation? If reputation is weighing heavily as a determinant then you’re going to be more open than you would normally, and you would take risks. For example, expressing concern — something most lawyers will pull leaders back from doing during times of crisis — there is a way of doing that by saying, “we understand how serious this is” but without issuing an apology. When you get back to business as usual, it’s how you’ve handled the crisis that’s going to have an impact on your reputation and ultimately that affects business continuity.
When you think of things on the fly, that’s when you get into trouble. But if you’ve got a crisis strategy and have done simulation training, even at a basic level, and everyone knows what to do and when, that preparedness can certainly help. Then it’s nailing those messages at the outset and working with your legal counsel so that you can say something without getting into trouble. It’s making sure there’s a war-room type of team together where you’ve got legal, communications and the senior executives of the firm all around the same table making decisions on what’s appropriate to say and when and to whom.

Q: Is it likely such a group will come to a consensus given their contrasting goals and roles?
A: That’s definitely a challenge, but it’s part of the discussion and debate. Ultimately, if we can come to an agreement on what our objectives are at the outset and do an assessment of risk, usually it takes some time and debate, but consensus can be achieved. It’s also about strong leadership. It’s someone making that call and saying, “thanks for your input, but here’s how we’re going to go.”

Q: Do you think the rise of the celebrity CEO and the greater focus on business leaders that have mass appeal is prompting boards or leadership teams to select new leaders with greater charisma, or is the focus still primarily on a candidate’s skill set?
A: Being a strong business leader and credible person to steward the company, that’s still first and foremost. I’ve seen leaders that aren’t that touchy-feely, roll-up-the-sleeves kinds of guys, but they’re well-respected and staff will follow them. Everybody wants to relate to leaders as humans and we’ll be increasing participation by corporate leaders; in social media, for example, a lot more of their personalities are coming out. But does charisma trump skill set? I personally don’t believe it does. Can it help? Absolutely.

Q: When it comes to internal communications, what are the key considerations for communications with larger groups so that they are not only able to absorb the information that they’re being given but that they see that information as honest and forthcoming?
A: It’s the messages first of all. When communicating, it’s not just the information you want them to have, but what they’re expecting from you. It’s answering, “what’s in it for me?” when communicating, and anticipating potential concerns and making sure that you’ve got messages that you’re supporting with facts and data and anecdotes and stories to make it credible. Going up and giving a bunch of corporate slogans and jargon and corporate speak is not necessarily going to be the most effective way.
It’s being real, talking plainly and then it’s also the credibility of the messenger (how much trust is there in that leader?). And it goes beyond just having a town hall and expecting those messages to resonate and change behaviour and attitudes; that’s not necessarily realistic. That’s where you rely on the cascade of your other leaders and informal leaders in your organization to take those messages and deliver them proactively to the people they manage. We’ve seen studies that show direct communications from the direct manager or supervisor is the most trusted form of communication.

Q: You say corporate speak is no longer effective. Does that mean we can put the final nail in the coffin of spin? Is spin dead?
A: Spin is dead. But when we talk about spin, I think we have to have a common understanding of what spin is. We’ve all watched interviews where spokespeople are just repeating the same messages over and over again. That’s partly training and part of risk management. That’s part of getting the facts and not speculating during times of crisis, because you could make the situation worse. Spin is trying to make something sound great when it’s not, and there’s not evidence to back it up. Spin implies a bit of deception and that you’re trying to put one over on people. We’re a sophisticated society and we expect better from leaders and communicators, particularly during times of crisis. You can see through it.
You can make a claim, but if it’s not believable there are resources available everywhere through online channels to be able to source information. If you’re caught making a claim that’s not true and someone has gone on the Internet to find piles of information, or has gone to other experts, to prove you wrong then that’s going to affect your credibility and the credibility of your messages going forward.
That said, because of the vast amounts of information on the Internet, not all of it is accurate. So, it’s really being reliable when you’re communicating during a crisis. Bring your experts and make sure your proof and evidence is backed up and that you’re as sincere as you can be in your action and words.

Q: Are business leaders taking a proactive approach to this new dynamic in communications or are they waiting for things to go awry and then reacting?
A: I can only speak form the clients we work with. Communications never used to be at the C-Suite table, and if it was, it was more of a marketing function. We’re seeing the importance of communication at the senior executive level and, increasingly, of internal communications. When leaders look at their reputation, traditionally the focus has been communicating outside the organization. Now, more leaders are getting the importance of communicating internally. There’s a great quote that I saw in the Economist: “Employees are becoming the unattended guardians of the brand.” They’re speaking at BBQs, on Twitter, on every outlet, so they’re really carrying the reputation. More corporate leaders are focusing on developing internal communications programs, especially in times of crisis.
We have worked with a couple of clients that have landed in hot water thinking that the factors that are making things worse are external when sometimes it’s their own members or employees who are speaking out because they don’t understand what’s going on or what’s expected of them, and they haven’t heard anything from the company, so they’re making assumptions and engaging in their own water coolers both internally and externally.