If Communications Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It Well

united_737_max9“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” has been attributed to different people, from the actors Jack Lemmon and Gregory Peck to thespians Edmund Kean and Edmund Gwenn. Perhaps we can augment that aphorism: “Dying is easy, communicating is hard.”

At the spring summit of the Arthur W. Page Society last week in NY, activist Tamika Mallory, who helped organize the Women’s March, reminded communicators it is their job to ensure brands are authentic yet also culturally and socially aware. Criticizing the Pepsi-Kendall Jenner commercial, Mallory, a black woman, asked rhetorically, “Was there anyone who looked like me in that room [of Pepsi executives who approved the commercial]?” We’d ask: Was a communicator present?

Brand communications is a team sport. While CEOs and some communicators are at the top of the corporate ladder, there are people who work in the kitchen of large brands, literally “in the basement,” who can provide a diverse perspective about a commercial, Mallory said. “Do it [ask them]. They’ll be happy to tell you.” It’s not a coincidence that an oft-mentioned word during the Page sessions Friday was “humility.” As in the C-suite might not be a brand’s sole repository of knowledge and awareness about culture and society.

Good communications is necessary on a much smaller scale, too. Think of the blogger who has completed her writing, edited carefully and found apposite photos (legally, of course) to include in a post. The trouble comes when our blogger is ready to post the essay to the web. Despite following the myriad instructions required to post (that’s material for a blog in itself), the blog was uncooperative; it stubbornly refused to move to the web. The culprit? A web designer modified a step in the posting process just hours before, but hadn’t been communicated that fact to editors. Oh, thy kingdom for integrated communications.

One of the conundrums about baseball is why good hitters suddenly will have a bad year. Why, for example, will a player who hits .300 for 5 years in a row fall 60 points in season 6?

Similarly, do people who communicate well ever stop being good at it? Does a CEO’s communications batting average plummet suddenly? By now most readers know of the chuckle social media is having at the expense of United and its CEO Oscar Munoz, the newest poster boy for corporate-speak, who has helped make the word “re-accommodate” a staple of the language. Thing is, Munoz previously was considered a great communicator. As many of you know, last month PRWeek named him its Communicator of the Year for 2017. The publication’s editor, Steve Barrett, wrote April 11, ” It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.”

And Munoz is far from the only CEO whose lauded communications prowess has suffered a precipitous fall. It’s ironic that just as Munoz is occupying the hot seat, the name of John Stumpf, the ousted CEO of Wells Fargo, is back in the headlines. In a board-issued report, Stumpf earned ignominious ink this week as he was fingered for his handling of the bank’s bogus credit card scandal. It also came to light that he’s been forced to cough up an additional $28 million through a claw back, another term that previously hadn’t rolled off the tongue often.

Not too long before the Wells Fargo hubbub, Stumpf was considered a straight shooter, an authentic voice and a model communicator. Yet his reputation was tarnished when his initial handling of the scandal was less than truthful. Stumpf held the corporate line during House and Senate appearances, downplaying the scandal and insisting, until angry lawmakers backed him into a corner, that Wells Fargo’s crisis was not a cultural issue.

Did Munoz and Stumpf suddenly stop being good communicators just as a hitter in baseball, known for consistency, experiences an off year?

When an athlete suddenly fails to perform coaches, physicians and increasingly psychiatrists are summoned. Often the reason is an injury that the player is hiding.

What about communicators who suddenly fail to communicate well? It’s ironic that truth and lies were key themes of the Page summit. In a chat at the event, Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker noted that politicians have been “economical with the truth” for centuries. He admitted, though, that the current U.S. president probably does so “more than most.”

On the subject of truth, Page’s 36-member board took the unusual (for it) step of making a public statement, reiterating the first of the seven Page Principles: Tell the Truth. We’d argue when a CEO who’s usually a strong communicator goes into an inexplicable PR tale spin (pun intended), a critical injection of truth serum might be the best prescription. As we write, Munoz seems to be moving in a more truthful direction on his brand’s current controversy. Stumpf’s experience should have persuaded him to move faster.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein