Brian Williams may have disappeared from our television screens. The issue that led to his becoming the news instead of merely reporting it, has not -- and that is, trust. For a journalist who is supposed to seek and tell the truth, embellishing the truth is careless malpractice.
This very sad Williams tale is part of a continuum of broken promises that has been wrought on the public by sports figures, corporations, celebrities and its politicians. We want to believe in our institutions and the people who run them. But too often, what they claim to be and what they actually are don't match up. To hide that gap, they will hire an army of publicists to spin tales of denial or misremembering. Sometimes, they seem to think that if they just apologize and move on, then everything will be all right.
But it's not all right, even if it turns out all right for them. Every Brian Williams, Lance Armstrong, GM, NFL, Lehman Brothers, Enron, Catholic Church, fill-in-your-blank scandal makes us all more cynical and less trusting. It hardens our hearts and our minds. And it makes us tune out because we can't help but wonder what other lies we are being fed. It's hard to simply believe.
Communication is the glue that can help us discover or rediscover belief, but without trust in the veracity and sincerity of that communication, we're left with what amounts to a heap of meaningless words. In some ways, those of us who are communications professionals can be complicit in the trust deficit. As we seek to help organizations shape a positive narrative to establish or repair a reputation, we must ask ourselves whether what we are doing with our audiences is helping to build trust -- or erode it.
Here are a few questions we should all be asking:
What is the truth? Seems pretty obvious, right? But all too often, communications folks take at face value what a product or program is worth, based on what executive leadership and staff tell them. We have to be the skeptics. We have to ask the hard questions. Does this face cream really reduce wrinkles? Does our intervention in low-income neighborhoods really change lives? Can we show results? Where's the evidence? We have to get the facts right first before we start telling the story. The communications professional is the first line of defense.
What's the risk in telling the truth? Companies and organizations frequently go to great lengths to suppress negative information, hoping it won't see the light of day. The fact is that most of the time the covered is uncovered. And as a result, the missteps aren't the most harmful aspect -- it's the cover-up. Carefully evaluate the damage that might occur when having to relay missteps, understand the consequences and fallout and work from there. In Williams' case, the risk was in losing his job and his stature. For NBC, it's losing viewers and revenue. Big losses to be sure in the short-term. For the long term, however, the risk is in losing the credibility and trust of an entire news division -- and of the news industry in general. And the damages inflicted by implausibility aren't limited to famous faces. GM and Toyota were afraid to make public defects in certain models of their cars, fearful that it would tarnish their reputation and eat into their profits. By not doing so, their reputations took a bigger hit for hiding important information that, if known, might have prevented deaths. And they now face big payouts in lawsuits.
Are we omitting key facts? This is perhaps the slipperiest of all slopes. Too many times we can't tell the whole truth. It might be in the case of sensitive situations under investigation, or it might be unwise to say what we know until we can put all the facts together. We may be bound by confidentiality agreements with third parties. Or, in the case of a privately held company, we could choose not to disclose revenue numbers. In these situations, we have to be very clear that we aren't telling the full story. And, if possible, it's best to be open and honest about why we aren't. Nothing is worse than sharing information and implying that you've shared it all. Remember Donald Rumsfeld's reply to a question from a reporter during the Iraq war? "Yes I know," he said, "but I am not going to tell you." Blunt honesty in that instance worked. More tempered alternatives might be, "Here are the facts I can share with you," or, "As a matter of policy, we don't disclose our revenue numbers," or even, "I have no additional information that I can share now."
Are we bending the truth? The best advertising and marketing comes, not from overselling, but from authenticity. Your claims about being the best thing since sliced bread might get someone to buy your product or support your cause, but the experience must live up to the hype. Ask yourself whether you company or organization really does deliver on its promises. Rather than over claiming, find a way to connect your product or cause with what matters to the audience. The Budweiser Superbowl ads with their demonstrations of canine-equine friendship work because, instead of touting a magical beer, they associate the product with friendship.
Trust is so very hard to earn. It's even tougher to get back once broken. Actions and honest communication are ingredients to build trust. As communicators, marketers, advertisers and P.R. professionals, we have a duty to help our enterprises and clients figure out how to connect the two consistently.