“Preach the gospel – and if you have to, use words.” So St Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said. I found myself quoting it to an MA student who was writing her dissertation on how the Church of England communicates – or fails to. What I meant was that the C of E is at its best when it’s doing, rather than when it’s talking about itself.
Later the same day I was with clients. They have some challenges over a contentious corporate play – but we don’t discuss clients publicly, I’m afraid – and were anxious to join the media fray, to get “some positive stories out there” and “to put their side of the story”.
But in reality the value of their project was in what they were doing, not in what they were saying about it. To join the public debate would have meant scoring some positive media coverage, forgotten within 72 hours, to which the other side would have responded anyway, simply entrenching the argument.
Meanwhile, further soundbite chunks would have been taken out of them by pithy misrepresentation in social media – or “lies” as they are technically known.
Naturally, this assumes that my client is right. I happen to believe that it is, but I’m also aware that the truth of the circumstance we’re addressing – like any truth – has both subjective and objective qualities. As a desk editor once told me on a national newspaper, when I grew heated about settling a libel action in which I knew we were in the right: “Listen, George – there’s your truth, there’s my truth and there’s THE truth.”
That only fuels the imperative to be judged by our actions rather than by our arguments. There really is no point in talking about what you do if you’re not doing it. Or if what you’re doing is essentially iniquitous or banal. I would go further: It’s not only about what you do, but about what you are. And most corporates simply do not know what they are or, indeed, what they’re for.
That’s why if I read another PR agency site that promises to “help” its clients to “get your message across” I’ll be sick.
“Communicate – and if you have to, use words”. That might be a rubric for our corporates and institutions that have since the financial collapse of 2008 squandered so much in public goodwill and trust by pretending to be something they’re patently not.
Decide what you are, take affirmative action and the stories will follow. Start at the other end of that process and you can look forward to a short and bloody fight, after which you can lay your reputation to rest at the feet of an angry public that’s had enough, for a generation at least, of being patronised with empty words.