If you look up business communication on Wikipedia you get a definition that encompasses everything from marketing, brand management, advertising and consumer behaviour to public, community and internal relations to reputation management, interpersonal communication, employee engagement and event management.
I think it’s safe to say that ‘business communication’ is an umbrella concept that can (but shouldn’t) hide a multitude of sins. Hopefully none of these sins are deadly although some have been known to be career killers. Who could forget that ill-fated media release signed off by James Hardie directors on the adequacy of the company’s asbestos compensation fund?
Quite often with amorphous notions like business communication I find it easier to get a handle on them by describing what they are not. So here it is, underpinned by a Bachelor of Business Communication degree (Journalism and PR majors), more than two decades of working in various communication disciplines (and all the scars to prove it), here are three things that I believe business communication is not:
- It isn’t spin.
I loathe the fact that the business communication profession has been hijacked by the Spin Doctors. The very term conjures up, at best, lies and deliberate distortions of the truth and at worst slimy dealings, phoney focus groups and concocted survey results. The Amazon description of the book Toxic Sludge is Good For You – Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (by John Stauben and Sheldon Rampton) says it all, unfortunately – ‘…this number one seller blows the lid off of today’s multi-billion-dollar propaganda-for-hire PR industry, revealing how public relations wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phony “grassroots” front groups, spy on citizens and conspire with lobbyists and politicians.’
It bugs me that this is an accurate description of what most people, including intelligent company directors, high ranking bureaucrats and long term politicians think PR is all about – obscuring the truth, shutting down public debate and media scrutiny. Spin Doctors and Mistruth Merchants give professional business communicators a bad name.
I’m prepared to go way out on a limb here and say something a bit shocking – that you actually can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but after a while it starts to smell. This smelly decomposition process used to take time, maybe even years – remember Enron, WorldCom, the supposed existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and even former NSW Government Minister, Eddie Obeid?
These days, thanks to the advent of YouTube, citizen’s journalism, the Twitterspere and one hour, global news cycles, these hoaxes and scandals seem to be coming to light a lot faster. Either way, as per the famous quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice “the truth will out”. It always does and when it does and the floodgates of scandal open, take a look around to see what’s become of your sly spin counsellor. Nowhere to be seen I’ll be willing to wager. They will have moved onto greener, slimier pastures by then leaving the company directors and high public office bearer to take the fall. I’ll hate to say I told you so when it happens.
- Business communication is not just what you say.
Only a small percentage of the meaning of any communication, business or interpersonal, is accorded to the words. The rest is relayed by the delivery and the actions that follow it. Picture yourself as a hard working employee, having just read an all staff email from the CEO informing you and your colleagues of the parlous state of the organisation’s performance and that retrenchments will begin next week. You then pick up the day’s newspaper to read a report on yesterday’s AGM where the Board approved a multi-million dollar bonus payment to the very same CEO despite considerable shareholder disquiet.
Or picture the severely Christian politician, constantly espousing public morality and ‘family values’ caught with porn on the home office computer. I’m sure you get my drift here. Business communication is not just about the carefully scripted words and the company directors or politicians (no doubt media trained within a centimetre of their lives) saying stuff in the media. How information is delivered speaks volumes. Canadian philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. Would you believe you are the ‘valued employee’ or part of your organisation’s ‘greatest asset’ as espoused in the induction pack HR gave you on your first day if you subsequently received a faceless email about the loss of your job?
Perhaps even more importantly in our opinion, actions trump words every time. Hypocrisy sucks as a communication technique so be sure to say what you mean and do as you say.
- Business communication isn’t one way.
The advent of advertising and mass media channels of communication business and government leaders (and PR people for that matter) were lulled into a false sense of security about control over their to communications to their stakeholders. They’d fashion messages, stick to them like glue again and again in interviews and trust the demographic accuracy and reach of the medium via which they chose to impart them.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to be clear about what you want to say about your company, product, policy or the issue at hand, and to have a plan as to how you intend to get your message across. Having said that, believing that your well-crafted messages will be pushed out via the media or other channel to a passive, accepting audience, is just plain delusional.
A lot of organisations say they want a conversation with their consumers or constituents but they clearly don’t want that at all. They just want their consumers or constituents to believe the messages that are pushed to them and to do as they are told – buy this washing powder, support this cause, vote for this guy or that, make sure your timesheets are in by 5.00pm Friday – whatever. If anyone is even listening in the first place, and your message resonates with them orthey disagree with what you have to say they may respond. There are plenty of tools with which to do that – Twitter, Facebook, your organisation’s website, and petition sites like Change.org, your own company’s internal email, intranet or instant messaging system and so on.
If they respond, then you’d better be listening. Furthermore you’d better be ready to engage and respond appropriately and by that I mean demonstrate that you’ve heard. If you don’t you risk:
- Losing the most highly prized commodity of this new digital age – an engaged audience, or,
- Mobilising your audience against you. Spare a thought for Tony Hayward the former CEO of British Petroleum who, at the height of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico famously said on The Today Show, “There’s no one who wants this over more that I do. I’d like my life back.” This statement coupled with his subsequent yachting holiday further fuelled the already dry tinder of dissent among communities right along the Gulf coast and beyond. British Petroleum’s often dismissive responses to community and global concerns over the disaster even gave relations between the White House and Number 10 Downing St a jolly good shake.
No, business communication is certainly not one way – it’s interactive and truth be told, it always has been. Now that constituents and consumers are so adept at getting their voices heard and garnering support from communities of interest, in uber-quick time, it might be prudent to consider how you or your organisation might respond to your audiences’ reaction before you start fashioning those spotless, media-friendly messages.
Even by defining it in the negative as we’ve done here, it’s clear to see that business communication is a very powerful tool for modern organisational life. It’s also an art worth your learning.