A client asked us to develop a communications plan to brand and publicize its commitment to people. This organization intended to put some significant resources behind both the plan and its tactics because it wanted to build its reputation as a company that cares about employees. Sounds simple, right? The only trouble … nowhere in this company’s actual strategic plan was the word, “people.” It wasn’t in the current plan, and we couldn’t find it anywhere in the company’s long range plan. When we had the opportunity to interview the Chief HR Officer, we learned that there wasn’t a lot of meat behind the message. It seemed to be a lot of “spin.” We didn’t take the assignment, but we went through an interesting thought process to come to our conclusion. We asked ourselves, …
1. Does it matter that the actions won’t match the words? Yes, especially long-term. In this case, we were concerned to take part in developing a plan that was heavy veneer. When the layers were peeled back, employees would see the reality of what’s underneath. We believe solid communications plans need to tell an authentic story and, ultimately, assume accountability for results. Consider another example, can a food company boast about its commitment to quality, but not have supply chain measures in place to ensure product quality? Is it possible for a toy manufacturer to say, “There’s nothing more important to us than children’s safety,” then have several recalls in a calendar year? This approach isn’t sustainable. People will eventually see through it. Just like a relationship you have with a friend, actions and words must match for the relationship to work.
2. What role does trust play? A big one. When actions and words don’t match, it erodes trust with our audiences. Lululemon Athletica has taken a public beating over its pricey black luon pants. The company had worked to create an image of quality in a high price tier, then one of its signature items was found to be sheer when the wearer bent over. A shareholder just filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the company defrauded shareholders by hiding defects. Hiding is a charged word, and certainly shows that the shareholder, and possibly customers, have lost trust. How will that translate to lost sales or eroded image? I believe it will … even if it takes some time. Trust is essential to a company’s relationship with its customers, shareholders, and employees.
3. Are there ethical considerations for a PR person who agrees to do a plan that doesn’t tell a real story? I believe the answer is “yes”. At Winning Presence, we don’t accept assignments that we know won’t deliver results. Remember our first example, we were asked to do a people image plan that we knew wouldn’t deliver … because it wasn’t real. We would have been helping tell a story that was full of spin. We knew that employees would hear the words, but experience something different at work. So ultimately, the plan could have a negative effect. We had to consider that it might actually erode trust because employees would see through the tactics as insincere or not authentic.
Any business depends on customers and employees for its success. In some cases, it depends on shareholders and investors. At the root, are relationships and trust. So any effective communications plan and tactics must tell a real story in order to keep these relationships strong.