It's a well-worn cliché, but actions do speak louder than words, especially when it comes to communicating in today's sometimes over-informed society.
Without action, public relations statements and messages lack credibility. It's no wonder public relations gets such a bad name from people who rightly call attempts to dress up the facts as "spin" or journalists who use the pejorative term "puffery" for what politicians and business people peddle for the truth.
The gap between what people and organisations say and do is often wide. When leading organisations, which are expected to behave better than their peers, make statements and don't match them with actions we can feel let down, disappointed and even hostile.
Take South African Airways (SAA), for instance, who recently seemed to dig its heels in against striking workers. Its apparent intractable position appeared to irk the unions. Large state enterprises should show a willingness to talk in a democracy no matter how difficult the circumstances. How long will it take to re-establish trust with employees?
Pick 'n Pay's approach to its strike was, true to form, refreshingly different. It seemed that no matter how hard the difficulties, Pick 'n Pay, with its commitment to consumer sovereignty, was open to talk. Companies and people take positions in negotiations but seldom such a hard-line stance that the parties remain in deadlock or have no alternative but to walk away. Mutual respect ensures a willingness to keep talking no mater how unpleasant the circumstances.
In a few instances companies' actions can speak louder than their words. The Old Mutual Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) deal seemed better than expected. As a shareholder, if you leaf through the Old Mutual BEE prospectus, you come away with a sense of just how much thought went into making possible real, broad based empowerment for ordinary employees, black management, black investment groups and disadvantaged communities.
Many CEOs today are being let go and during their tenure often their statements about how they will make their companies perform don't appear believable. Jurgen Schrempp who recently stepped down as head of DaimlerChrysler was interesting to watch. The $40 billion merger between Daimler and Chrysler in 1998 was expected to create value for stockholders. Almost seven years later that proposition did not seem to materialise. Since the merger DaimlerChrysler market capitalszation collapsed from a peak of Euro 95 billion to Euro 37 billion, losing some Euro 54 billion if one takes into account that the news of his departure was reported to have added Euro 3,2 billion to Daimler's market value on July 29, 2005 (Financial Times, The Lex Column).
Closer to home I am reminded about how hard it is to match action and words when I look at the Liberty Life billboards that proclaim "We're working on it", referring to their service to customers. It seems more credible for the company to launch a programme with the message that the organization is trying to improve than to possibly come out with promises of how good they were going to be at service.
The state broadcaster, SABC, launched their news service's outdoor advertising boards stating, "We don't write the script. The world does." The message seems to ignore the concerns that viewers and listeners often have about possible political interference in news content. E-news came out with a lively campaign stating, "Warning: No government approval" for their 7pm newscasts.
Companies and pr people who may think they can fool the media about performance or the lack of it would be mistaken. Journalists are trained to be skeptical in ferreting out the truth. They talk to a range of people before they form their opinions and write their stories. After the Enron collapse of 2001 journalists are more critical and are less likely to accept at face value statements from major corporations. Financial Times Editor, Andrew Gowers, told an audience of academics and journalists earlier in the year that if somebody advocates a revolutionary business process, product or concept journalists should speak to no fewer than 20 diverse sources to test the theory and print nothing until this has been done. (Press Gazette, March 3, 2005).
PR people need not worry about their press release on their client's innocuous new product being subject to such rigorous scrutiny but they should recognise that quality publications are taking steps to tighten up their news coverage and will be less likely to swallow stories where they detect holes or things that just don't add up. They need to take care to communicate authentically. Corporate image and reputation can be a fragile substance. They must ensure that their actions match their words.
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