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The dirty work of truth telling

By Justine Webse – guest blogger

Lying is a skill. We learn it early —about the age four[1], and continue to practice it all our lives. In adulthood, we tell around 13.3 lies per week (according to a University of Pittsburgh paper), and we do so for this simple reason: telling the truth does not always pay off.

In fact, examples from the animal kingdom reflect that lying is not always an act of cowardice or deceit for the sake of it[2], it is a calculated act of reason; a weighing up of risk versus reward.

In communications fields, this weighing up of risk versus reward is a fine line we walk every day. Some call it spin, others call it editing. Sometimes, you could even call it lying.

We walk this line when we publicly report a huge increase in profits one year after telling staff that redundancies were a matter of organisational survival.

We walk it when we report back on staff survey results and see major systemic issues yet the CEO wants us to focus on the 'positives'. We walk it when we decide to ignore a negative comment on social media, even if we know it to be true.

 

Putting lipstick on pigs

Focusing on the positives and 'spinning' the story is often what we are told our job as communicators is. But is it?

When we spend inordinate amounts of time on 'window dressing' the message, we allow our employers and clients to avoid the very thing they need us for: to generate and lead effective conversations.

As long as we focus our efforts on shutting conversation down, we leave the real work of communicating to someone else. We leave the hard conversations to line managers, to customer service agents and to others that may not be as skilled in conducting them. The more we sit behind a desk, tapping out grammatically correct platitudes, we leave others to do the dirty work of making change happen.

As Barack Obama said, "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig[3]."  

Yes Barack, eloquently put. Besides, communicators cannot add real value if they are busy spending days and weeks deciding on the absolute perfect shade of pink for said pig.

This is where our skills are needed

Surely, the measure of a great communicator is not his or her knowledge of lipsticks, but the ability to engage in timely, productive discussion. Surely a communicator's role is to tease out the issues, and to prepare employers and clients for the lay of the land —whatever it may be. It cannot be simply to paint over conflict or ignore it.

In a constantly connected, broadly networked and informed world, consumers and staff expect information, dialogue and speed in their communications with organisations and leaders. These are trends we would all be unwise to ignore.

However, one of the great case studies of 2013/14 on this very issue is writing itself right now here in Australia. It has to do with boats, seeking asylum and whether ceasing to report on them really is an effective medium-term communications strategy. We shall see.

 

Don't down tools just yet

Even as we watch the world of communications evolve, we must not forget that at the core of our work is the need to protect our employers' interests, and I am not suggesting we collectively ignore that responsibility. What I am suggesting is that we practise facing into the headwinds of opposition and using our skills to harness conflict for better outcomes.

What I am saying is, 'let's cut some of the crap' and get on with the real work of communications, which isn't about making stuff up, it's about changing minds and affecting behaviours. It's about learning how to have hard conversations with different kinds of stakeholders. It's about being braver in the face of disagreement and accepting that diversity of views and voices is what our whole world needs more of.

Sounds lofty and idealistic, I know. However, I would argue that honesty is not a thing, it's a process. It's something we do and practise. It takes a lot more skill than lying and it gets better outcomes. But yes, it is very hard, very messy work.

If you can't be inspired by idealism, consider this: telling the truth is faster and more productive. It saves countless wasted hours of meetings and untold emails or news articles that don't get read. It saves time —yours and that of your audience. It may even have unforeseen benefits for the bottom line.

Whether your goal is lofty or basic, truth has an awful lot of advantages. And the way I see it, leading productive conversations in difficult circumstances is what communicators must practise endlessly and tirelessly.

If we do anything less for our clients and employers, we will be back to applying cosmetics.

 

[1] http://www.wpic.pitt.edu/research/famhist/PDF_Articles/Elsevier/L%201.pdf

[2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-dolphin-divide/201309/why-do-we-lie

[3] http://nypost.com/2008/09/09/obama-put-lipstick-on-a-pig-its-still-a-pig/

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