Friday, May 22

Misunderstanding Intent: Communication Today

There is a fascinating post over at The Notorious R.O.B. that discusses some initial reservations with Todd Carpenter becoming the social media manager for the National Association of REALTORS. In the post, Rob Hahn describes those early reservations as associated with what he believed would be an impending shift from open communication to message control.

For the controversy over the MLS data and Google, I highly recommend the read. It's one of the most pressing issues in real estate today. However, this time around, I was reading the post for another reason all together. Hahn goes into some detail regarding message control and openness that seems to be a reoccurring conversation in social media.

"The overwhelming temptation for any company or organization that suddenly finds itself in the middle of a brewing (or full-blown) controversy is to lockdown message control. One person, typically the person in charge of Corporate Communication, speaks for the organization, and all inquiries are referred to that person. Behind the scenes, PR consultants, staff, lawyers, and other executives get into meeting after meeting to work out what will be said, how it will be said, and by whom. Once the message has been polished to a high gloss, it is put out to the world with extreme care."

Message control? Not really.

One of stories I like to share in my public relations class recounts how a local homebuilder initially reacted when a news station called after a handicapped woman complained that the homebuilder had violated the American Disabilities Act (ADA) after removing a ramp near a community mailbox near her home. The owners, who were on vacation, gave very clear instructions to their marketing manager.

"If the media calls, say no comment. If they come by, lock the doors."

Fortunately, the manager asked for support instead. Within a few minutes, all the details of what seemed like a pending news story were laid out on the table. The homebuilder hadn't done anything more than temporarily remove the makeshift ramp at the request of the city to meet municipal codes. The builder had notified the homeowner on three occasions. The homeowner would still be able to get her mail, with an access point just a little further away.

When the marketing manager followed up with the reporter, they agreed there wasn't a story.

"We ran an ADA story the other day, which typically invites call-ins. Most them aren't stories," said the reporter.

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about what constitutes message control and message management and open communication. The reality is that open communication can be managed. It's just the simple matter of everyone having access to the facts, as they eventually did in the story above. And yes, that did require various professionals to lend their insight.

The point being that open communication can often be successfully managed without control or spin. It doesn't require manipulation as much as it requires all communicating parties have the same facts. In fact, if they did, I doubt management would be so worried about employee communication online.

The reality is that there is no message control and there never really was. Lately, it seems, social media is frequently blamed when otherwise good brands get put in a negative light. But brands were being put in a negative light long before social media. The only difference was that the writers were journalists (and sometimes they still are).

If there is any takeaway today, it's simply that message control almost always consists of hiding the truth or deflecting from the facts. Message management, on the other hand, is a form of open communication that works to ensure the facts are considered in lieu of erroneous opinions. In other words, intent helps sort out the difference between authenticity (which Seth Godin mistakes as consistency) and transparency.

In fact, if more people understood the basic tenets of public relations and communication, there would probably be far fewer social media fails. Well, maybe.


Rob Hahn on 5/28/09, 11:50 PM said...

Thank you for this post! I love the story about the poor marketing manager. :)

FWIW, I generally agree with your point re: message control vs. message management, and that the optimal solution is to make sure everyone has all of the facts.

At the same time, doesn't "message management" also require some level of control, particularly if you are a large organization, and particularly if you're facing a real shitstorm?

For example, a few months back, an official blogger on BusinessWeek speculated that Realogy was going bankrupt. The very last thing Realogy would want is for employees to get on that blog and start commenting, no? Or for an employee blogger to start talking about revenue problems at his division at Realogy? Aren't those challenges related to the fact that Realogy had not embraced social media principles, meaning that there was precious little transparency within the ranks --> not everyone had access to all of the facts.

To me, there IS a pretty fundamental difference between an organization that has embraced social media (and the principles behind it) and one that has not (like Realogy).

And to me, the whole "proximity to power" does matter when social media gets involved in the controversy. How could it not? Stakeholders would rather hear from the CEO than from the PR flack, no?

To some extent, I wonder if the example story you gave would be different if instead of the reporter simply contacting the marketing manager, a story had run stating that Homebuilder XYZ violates ADA laws, and a blogstorm had erupted as a result.

Social media PR/communications is really one of the most fascinating topics within social media itself. :)

Thanks again,


Rich on 5/30/09, 6:26 PM said...

Hey Rob,

Thanks for the comment. Sorry I was away and could not respond sooner.

Does it require some level of control? Not really. The information can be managed from broad (everything) to narrow (somethings). Sometimes, any concept of control can backfire because the messages have a tendency to be different. It's that difference that makes a crisis explode.

In terms of Realogy, they might consider that the employees are going to talk about it anyway. So there is only one choice to make: let them talk about it without knowledge or let them know what is going on. Maybe the employees didn't need to know all the details, but it seems to me allowing several thousand uneducated internal messages out there only waters down whatever contrived message that the company wanted to deliver.

Don't you think that's better? A consistent message that is authentic if not transparent? I do.

In terms of who they want to hear from, I think it depends on the person and the not the position. I know a great many people who connect so well with people that the title becomes meaningless. Of course, the gravity of the situation might make a difference, as I have written before. Sometimes, only the top will do.

As for my story, but that is the point, right? It didn't happen. But what if it did? We would have advised they respond with the facts. And some bloggers, assuming they didn't have cause to think the builder was lying (they weren't), would have likely written the truth.

But what else if they did? Heck ... one cannot control what other people say. The best they can do is manage what they say. And to me, that is the most valuable lesson of all. :)

All my best,

Atul C on 6/5/09, 11:40 PM said...

In this post you have narrated a story which was not a story. What does a company do when it is badly bismirched e.g. the recent Dominoes employee misapplying cheese. Obviously the company went into a state of confusion.
It would be interesting to try classify different types of situations and the accompanying message management.
For a lot of people and companies it would be interesting to know when to clam up.

Rich on 6/6/09, 5:32 PM said...


The first rule of crisis communication is don't panic.

Obviously Dominos panicked. It could have gathered the facts, dealt with the employees appropriately, and reported that such behavior is never tolerated. It was an isolated incidence to two employees.

No sob stories. Simply accept accountability, but not necessarily responsibility.

Companies can no more control such behavior than they can what's said about them online.



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