We are the Lens
As professional communicators, we stand between people and
information and give it shape and form. We are the lens through which
information is filtered. In most cases, whether we are journalists or
organizational commuicators, our intention is to make things clear for
Unfortunately, there are communicators who
distort the information. So the lens is scratched – or clouded with finger
prints – and the audience sees a fuzzy image.
The True Believer – Distortion by Accident
Try though we may, it’s unlikely that anyone can be truly impartial. Everyone’s view of the world is coloured by his or her experiences, learning and beliefs (and maybe their Meyers-Briggs Type and their astrological sign).
We imagine the truth, as we see it, is the real deal. We unintentionally distort the information we communicate to fit our personal world view. Knowing that we all have biases that filter the way we experience, receive and transmit information, I think it makes sense to declare them up front so your audience knows the nature of the lens. But then, I’m biased. Not only am I an over-40, Honda-driving Canadian with a liberal arts education (and an ENFJ Leo), I’m a natural optimist who believes people want to be understood and believed when they communicate.
Exceptions to that cherished belief bring us to the second type of distortion.
The True Deceiver – Distortion by Design
These are the people who deliberately set out to shape a less than truthful picture of the facts. Whether they engage in propaganda, spin doctoring, political campaign rhetoric, press agentry or "sensational" journalism, true deceivers embellish the "truth" that serves their ends and diminish what doesn’t serve them. They know they’re being "less than truthful" and so does most of their audience. This is the stuff that inspires public inquiries. This is the stuff that gets people fired. This is the stuff that scares the public and erodes trust.
Disintermediation and CEOs who blog
As communication professionals, we need to step up our efforts to get and share a clear picture, one that’s undistorted by accident or design. If we don’t, we risk redundancy.
Communicators are intermediaries in a world
that is, increasingly disintermediated. We once were the "source" for current and relevant information. Today, people don’t need to go to traditional
news organizations for news. They can go to the Internet. Consumers don’t have to rely on what companies tell them about their products. They can find rants, raves, and reviews of almost every product or service on the Net.
Online, they find everyone from lunatics to CEOs (and some who fit both categories) expressing their opinions on millions of topics. When people can go right to a web site or blog and get the story (official or unofficial) for themselves, public relations people and journalists are cut out of the game. We lose the role of leading and shaping opinion.
Some might argue that’s a good thing. But, for most people, going to the Net is a bit like a walk in the dark without your glasses. You’re dazzled by the brightest and lulled into a false sense of safety by the familiar.
I’ll argue that someone needs to take on the role of discerning what’s true and presenting it to people so bombarded with information they no longer know what to believe. That "someone" can and should be professional communicators. The trick is to demonstrate that our lens is as smudge-free as it gets. Or, at least, declare the tint of the filter.
Did they ever trust us?
That’s the question IABC Chair Warren Bickford asks in response to my blog post, March 20, about the Léger poll that suggests more than half the people in Canada don’t trust professional communicators.
Of the 22 professions measured, PR folk are the fourth least trusted professional group. Even lawyers fare better. Journalists, too, are trusted by less than half the population. Ouch!
The chart shows the trend, along with scores for the most and least trusted professions. Not much variation over five years. Maybe, as Warren suggests, they never did trust us.
So what’s the deal here? Should the public trust professional communicators? If so, how do we make that happen? If not, what’s the point of our work? Besides paying for groceries.
So, let’s say that, along with buying groceries, communicators want to gain the public’s trust. Can we take our own good advice – do the things we urge our clients to do?
- Be visible.
- Listen to your audience.
- Acknowledge people’s feelings.
- Answer their questions.
- Tell the truth.
- Admit when you’re wrong.
- Do what you say you will.
- Remember that actions speak louder than words.
I think we know the answer. Let’s look at a few of the steps.
Be visible. The first action is to step out and talk about what we do and why we do it. Let
the public see that "spin doctors" and "muckrakers" are dinosaurs. PR, done well, is not about hyperbole or avoiding the truth. Journalism, done well, is not about pointing out the bad things in society or glorifying conflict. We know our work is to find out what people need to know or want to know and present it as clearly and accurately as we can. Let’s make that obvious by talking about what we’re doing. Let’s also stand up for those codes of ethics our professional associations promote, and apply some pressure to practitioners who cross the line.
For example, I know of a situation where, based on the contents of a news release, a newspaper printed an account of a meeting involving locals visiting a far off land. The next day, one of the alleged (and quoted) participants called the paper to state that the event never actually took place. Enraged, the reporter wrote an article about how the event was misrepresented, in which the PR woman admitted that, perhaps, the news release wasn’t exactly accurate. It was based on what was supposed to happen and sent out to meet the newspaper’s early deadline. The reporter didn’t verify. The PR woman didn’t verify. Honest mistake? Ethical violation? Either way, they both should have been slapped! I’m guessing each one learned an important lesson.
Listen to your audience. We need to get out there and talk to real people. Not our cosy colleagues. What do they think of our professions? Where do they get their impressions of us? How do they feel about our work? What would it take to make them trust us? Is trust even possible? How will we know when we get there? These are not questions pollsters are asking – not until we pay them to ask. We need to get out of the office and talk to people – not about the content of our communication, but about the nature, context and utility of it.
Acknowledge people’s feelings. Let’s look at the feelings that underlie trust and mistrust. Some emotional intelligence theorists suggest that all feelings boil down to "mad, sad, glad, or scared." So what’s the emotion? Do those who don’t trust us fear that they’re not getting the real story? That’s my take on it. Do I hear a good argument for angry or sad?
Answer their questions. What do people want to know about our professions? Apart from the usual whine about journalists, "Why don’t you ever write about good news?", my guess would be, "They don’t really want to know much." Maybe we need to let them know how we operate, so they can work with us to bring their interests and needs to the attention of people who can make a difference for them and, in the case of corporate communicators, for our employers. Maybe some of us already are doing this.
Tell the truth. Admit when you’re wrong. Do what you say you will. I’m thinking these suggestions don’t need expansion.
Remember that actions speak louder than words. We communicators need to take our own medicine. If, on our own behalf or on behalf of our profession, we actively and visibly practise the habits we urge our clients and audiences to adopt, we’ll surely gather some goodwill along the way. We might even get better at our jobs, since we’ll actually be using our "products."
Will the public ever trust us as much as, say, firefighters? Maybe not. Maybe yes. Maybe it’s time to think big.
Coming next: Disintermediation – and CEOs who blog.
Once again, professional communicators have scored near the bottom of the heap in Canada’s "Who Do You Trust?" sweepstakes. Produced by Léger Marketing for The Canadian Press, the survey, done in February and released today, polled a representative sample of 1,500 Canadians to determine the degree to which they trust members of 22 professions.
Politicians hung on to their usual spot at the bottom of that list, with just 14% of the population trusting them. Joining them in the low trust zone are the folks in auto sales, with just 19%.
Fourth from the bottom, barely squeaking past trade unionists in their battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians, are PR practitioners. Only 40% of those polled trust them. Journalists aren’t far behind, trusted by less than half the population.
I don’t pretend to be surprised by this; however, I am saddened. It’s not because I’ve actually practised both these professions and, despite that, want you and the rest of the world to love and trust me. It’s that both these professions are making a great deal of noise about professionalism, integrity, honesty, ethics, and all that wonderful stuff – and it just doesn’t seem to be working.
Never before have so many Canadian universities and colleges been offering under- and post-graduate programs in journalism, communication and public relations. It is almost impossible to get a job in any communication-related industry without such a degree or diploma.
In addition, organizations such as International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) are enthusiastically pushing professional accreditation. (I can’t speak for the APR, but I know as a one-time testee and, now, a tester, that the ABC is not a cake-walk. It outranks MBA Finance in the, "Yikes, you have to be smart for this!" department.)
These professional associations, like the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), also have codes of ethical standards that guide their members. In most academic programs and the professional association certifications, the study of ethics is offered, if not mandatory.
So if we’re all so smart and filled with integrity, why don’t the people trust communicators?
- Is the word not getting out?
- Is the message just not believable?
- Are we so busy telling everyone else’s
story that we don’t have the energy or time to tell our own?
- Are we
failing to use our hard-won, well-honed skills and, therefore, failing at our own game?
- Is it time we did some advocacy for the communication profession?
I say, "Yes," to all.
And I’ll plead, "Guilty," to the sins of omission. As a professional communicator, I’ve quit jobs (in both TV and PR) over sleazy practices, yet rather than take a loud and public stand, I quietly walked away. As a member of IABC, I’ve been calling for the organization to do a better job of marketing the profession, yet I haven’t been screaming from the rafters, "Hire a communicator!" (Frankly, I haven’t even been screaming, "Hire me!")
So, the series begins. "How do communicators earn the public trust?"
Feel free to share your ideas by posting comments.
Greetings from Florence. Alitalia has created a brilliant opportunity to write something about BAD customer communication. “What do you expect?” I hear you ask, “It’s an airline.” OK, I’ve been a spoiled princess where airlines have been concerned. Alitalia is making up for all that.
The fact that Alitalia has an area on its web site for dealing with lost luggage should have been a clue that things could go wrong. The more distressing thing is – it doesn’t work. I dutifully entered the number they gave me at the lost luggage counter at the airport, and the system doesn’t recognize me or the bag. If you call the office, you hear a tape recording telling you that all claims must be in writing and there is absolutely no point in trying to talk to anyone. Yes, let’s just cut off all communication with anyone who might actually be able to tell me that someone is actually searching for this bag.
When a customer has a problem with your product or service, it’s important that they get some sort of acknowledgement that someone notices or cares. Actually being seen to be doing something to resolve the problem is even better. Best of all? Solving the problem!
I don’t know whether this is something Alitalia doesn’t know, or if it’s employees and managers just can’t deal with all the yelling. But shutting off communication won’t stop the yelling. It makes us yell more. We just yell more publicly and to anyone who’ll listen.
Yelling was something they were really trying to avoid when they cancelled the London – Milan and London-Rome flights yesterday morning due to a scheduled short-term strike by – well – nobody could tell us. Hundreds of people were inconvenienced – and the situation was made worse by the fact that the airline would provide no information. No info about rescheduling. No info about what would happen if we missed connections. No info about why the flight was cancelled.
When someone in the line with a wireless-connected laptop tried to get to the Alitalia web site to see if they could get some info on rebooking, we learned about the shocking bombings in the London Underground. Already stressed, the crowd’s anxiety levels increased.
A group travelling to Africa was clearly going to miss its very necessary connection. As they became more agitated and anxious, they became louder. The official became more steadfast in his refusal to give them any information that might suggest anyone knew or cared about their situation. I actually heard him threaten to call police and have the next person who yelled at him arrested.
This was all going on in a communication situation complicated by language and cultural differences and the shock of the bombings. A little sensitivity was completely in order, and none was demonstrated.
Sure, Alitalia is, like so many airlines, experiencing serious financial and operational difficulties. But information doesn’t cost anything. Neither does being nice. Going incommunicado is not a survival strategy.