By Mark Tosczak
You would think, after almost 20 years in the communications business, that I wouldn’t be surprised anymore by the blind spots that still afflict many organizations.
Here are five of the biggest communications fallacies I see.
1. Thinking everyone understands your specialized terminology
About 15 years ago I was doing some public relations consulting for a Fortune 50 company, handling local media relations in one of their markets and doing some community affairs work. I used to sit on conference calls with media relations staff from across the company (and across the country). I also used to sit in meetings with the local public affairs team in my market.
One day I found myself using the term “SME” in one of those local meetings. The employee communications head spoke up and asked what that meant. I was a bit surprised, because on the media relations calls, that term was tossed around all the time; I assumed everyone working in the company’s public affairs and corporate communications function would understand it. Turns out they didn’t.
I made the mistake of assuming that because that acronym was used and understood within one part of the public affairs group, that everyone understood it. (By the way, it means “subject matter expert” and was a shorthand way to refer to the internal company employees for whom we sometimes arranged media interviews.)
I still encounter this problem today. Product specialists believe customers understand their jargon. Or they believe their category is so well known that all potential customers, industry influencers and people working in the field understand the term. Heck, we still find ourselves explaining to clients the difference between a pitch and a press release — our clients often don’t understand PR jargon.
This is, by the way, one of the reasons AP Style almost always requires spelling out acronyms on first use. Organizations should do the same. If you have to use specialized terminology, make sure you explain it.
2. Believing everyone pays as much attention to your industry, company, brand or product as you do
You work at your job 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week (or maybe more). You spend your time thinking about what you and your company are doing, and what your competitors are doing. As a result of that, there are things in your professional life that are a big deal to you – a new product launch, a milestone in the life of your company, a decision made by a government agency that regulates your industry.
But for most other people, those things are not a big deal. Your current customers may take notice. Prospective customers could notice, but probably won’t. And journalists and other influencers – even if they notice – probably won’t think those events are as important as you do. Those people are not spending all of their time focused on the things you (and your bosses and clients) are focused on.
So how do you get others to pay attention, care and take action? Understand what those other people care about and make your events and milestones powerfully relevant to them and their needs. Instead of trying to persuade people to see the world the way you do, focus on making those things in your world important to them.
3. Using fancy language to communicate with the fancy crowd
Understanding your audience is critical. But too many organizations think that because their audience is well educated, affluent and successful, the language used to communicate with them should sound like something out of a grad school textbook. It shouldn’t.
If your audience is better educated and more affluent, chances are they are also busier and more pressed for time. (Attention B2B marketers: This is especially true for your buyers.) Those people don’t need, and won’t respond well to, lengthy sentences, 50-cent words and “sophisticated” vocabulary.
Instead, focus on communicating your messages simply and clearly. And if you can use visuals and typography to make your communications clearer, do so.
4. Thinking communications and relationships can cover up problems caused by bad products or bad relationships
When organizations run into problems due to bad products or bad actions, sometimes they think the easiest way to solve those problems is to try to paper them over with some slick PR or a few persuasive phone calls to influencers “we have a relationship with.” That can be a mistake.
If you’ve got bad products or you’re doing something wrong, the first thing you need to do is fix those products and policies. (Of course, I’m assuming you’ve got enough objectivity and clarity that you recognize those are the problems.) Sending out a news release or calling an influential friend might seem like an easier, cheaper, faster way to make the bad news go away, but it probably won’t help.
So fix the problem first. Once you’ve started down that road, you can focus on communicating how you’ve fixed it, or that you’ve started to address it, if it’s not a quick fix. I’m not suggesting you go silent for a long time — that can be disastrous. But you’ve got do more than just communicate; you need to take action to address the underlying issue.
Trying to communicate without working to solve the underlying problem will probably make things worse.
5. Believing the media is biased against you
I worked as a journalist for quite a few years. I’ve also worked on “the dark side” for quite a few years, pitching stories and trying to get journalists to pay attention (in a positive way) to my clients. I’ve seen very little “media bias” (as most people use that term).
I have seen and heard, though, a fair amount of complaining, though, about media bias. It’s a lot easier to explain away negative coverage that way then it is to either acknowledge there are legitimate differences of opinion within your industry or accept that you haven’t been very persuasive in communicating your point of view.
For the most part, news reporters are interested in stories they find interesting or that they believe are important for their readers to know. Frequently, “interesting” and “important” means that there’s conflict, questions of whether something is “good” for society, or some very compelling human angle. Journalists sometimes also have biases toward sources that make their jobs easier, toward sources that are pleasant to interact with and toward sources that help provide them those interesting and important stories.
I don’t always agree with the news judgment of news outlets, but I think complaining about that news judgment or labeling it as biased is the easy way out. More challenging, but potentially more fruitful, is acknowledging how the media actually makes decisions and working to communicate your point of view within that framework.
Can we escape these fallacies?
Seeing through these blind spots can be tough. There are organizational and social pressures that sometimes make it easier to ignore these blind spots rather than recognize them. But skilled communicators know that recognizing these blind spots and working to overcome them is one of the few true competitive advantages they can develop.