Wednesday, August 15

Alienating Publics: Every Message Is Public

You would think communicators would get it by now. While it always pays to tailor your message to an intended audience, there are no intended audiences anymore. Everything is subject to global opinion.

In 2008, Yahoo! became a public relations class example when it failed to consider that announcing cutbacks might have unintended consequences. The layoffs were announced to shareholders first, with smiles to suggest that the company was turning a corner. The lack of empathy impacted employees.

Flash forward four years and communicators have come full circle. President Obama is still trying to correct the misstep with his infamous "you didn't build that" speech. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a similar experience during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And CEO Dan Cathy did it when he was explaining his stance on same-sex marriage while speaking to Baptist Press.

Communication is never isolated to a single audience.

It is the easiest lesson to take away from the Chick-fil-A controversy. In considering his audience, sharing what he believed to be similar values with those who would read the Baptist Press made sense. Chick-fil-A wants to convey itself as a family-friendly restaurant chain.

Where it doesn't make sense is within the purview of a global audience. Words, even if there is no evidence of action, have consequences. But this isn't a just lesson for Cathy. It is a lesson for Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno too.

Moreno has been attempting to brush off his announcement that he will block Chick-fil-A's effort to build a second Chicago store. He has since backed down, simply saying he wanted to review their anti-discrimanation policy. At least his message is better than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has resorted to saying that he doesn't want to say any more and inflame the situation he already inflamed.

The aforementioned stories also have the best possible quote from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She said to Emanuel: "You're alienating conservatives in your city. It's difficult to alienate that many people in one lump. To do it concisely and memorably is a major accomplishment."

To alienate people concisely and memorably is a major accomplishment. 

No matter who you feel it fits best, it's the most concise and memorable lesson anywhere. The art of communication is hard not because people are afraid to be straight, but because they have to communicate their mission, vision, and values in such a way that it is honest without being hurtful.

Pretense: "Honey, do I look good in this dress?"

Pick one: 1) "The other one has always been my favorite." 2) "It makes you look fatter."

While some people are remiss that I haven't come out swinging with a stance on this issue, we can learn more by appreciating the finer art of communication. Think before you speak. And if you don't, take a moment to think about who you might have hurt with that last comment. You don't need fists to be a bully.

It's a lesson that Chick-fil-A has taken to heart. Consider the statement about the "Kiss" Day protest.

"At Chick-fil-A, we appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A. — Steve Robinson, executive vice president, marketing, Chick-fil-A, Inc. in response to "Kiss" Day.
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