When I was a single guy, I remember hearing that women would often judge men based on their relationship with their mothers. This approach included considerations on how they talk about and communicate with their moms. The idea is that they could potentially get a good feel for how someone would treat another woman in a relationship.
Can a similar principle apply to how a company communicates with (or even treats) its audience?
Similarly, how you talk about customers within your own company could impact how that same organization communicates with them publicly.
If someone asked you how people within your company talk about customers or prospects, what would be a fair assessment?
The Gullible View of Audience
Several years ago, a company hired me to help them develop some new copywriting ideas. When I was hired, I was invited to the office to learn more about the business and its messaging challenges.
When they were showing me around, they pointed out the copywriting team.
That threw me off a bit.
“If you have a team of copywriters, what made your hire someone like me?” I asked.
The response was, “We just need some fresh ideas.”
The company offered free online access to a service and wanted customers to pay for additional services via a monthly subscription. They sought to increase paid opt-ins and keep customers on their subscription plans.
Recently, many people would get what they wanted and opt out.
Then I found out what needed “fresh” ideas.
After people filled out the form for the free service, they were asked for credit card information.
I sat in on a meeting where an entire creative team discussed how a new website with photos of friendly-looking people would make users more comfortable with the last-minute credit card request.
Because the website looked nice and the photos looked like credible people - duh!
I was stunned by this.
It reminded me of My Cousin Vinny when Vinny asked his fiancé what pants he should wear to go deer hunting. She asked him if he was a deer, and some guy showed up and blew him away – would he care about what kind of pants the shooter was wearing?
I asked a similar question in the meeting.
“If any of you were told you’re getting something free, and you filled out a form to get the free service…but you were then asked for credit card information…would you really care how nice people looked on the website?”
As Ralphie Parker once said – They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.
This company viewed its audience as gullible people, and their external communications proved it.
The Explain Everything View
I’ve attended trade shows and seen vendors with backdrops that are so loaded with information that the text extends from top to bottom. Many people wouldn’t stop to read it all, and those who did would stop and confusingly ask, “What do you all do?”
Having the internal belief that your customers and prospects need everything explained can put strains on your business. These days, customers know their problems and understand what they want out of a solution.
Too much explaining on a website, email or other materials can:
A Mutually Beneficial View
Dr. James E. Grunig (public relations theorist and Professor Emeritus, Communication at the University of Maryland) developed the "excellence theory" in public relations. The development of this concept was pretty wide-ranging, to say the least:
Excellence theory takes what’s known as a symmetrical two-way communication approach. Now, what does that mean, and how can it apply to culture, communication and audience?
Let’s first look at other examples of communication and see how they could be applied to examples already discussed.
One-way communication – Think of this as an approach that an agent or publicist might take. The communication is focused on one side. Messaging will always be constructed or spun in ways that make the best possible impression on the audience for the subject's benefit.
Two-way communication – This is about considering the audience in the messaging. However, if it's asymmetrical, the benefit is still focused on the messenger because there is a layer of “scientific persuasion” used in communicating with the audience. In other words, they may listen to what the audience has to say about something, but the result will still be to persuade them for the sender’s benefit.
A two-way symmetrical approach like excellence theory is focused more on mutual benefits for the sender and the audience.
Applying a Communication Culture of Excellence
One of the big mistakes marketers make in their strategies is they think like marketers (and not consumers). Grunig believes public relations has to be more than just external marketing and PR communications by:
A key takeaway: If organizations already have a genuine interest in communicating in a mutually beneficial way, that can translate well into how that same company communicates and views its audience.
This approach can work for everything from businesses to academic institutions.
Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), a 1,200-employee industry-funded company, wanted to convey not only environmental responsibility, but also a high standard of ethics and integrity in their public reputation.
In a 2016 evaluation of the effectiveness of excellence theory within the organization, AER achieved one of its highest scores in ethics and integrity. Public Affairs contributed to the organization's success (and public opinion) through communication and professionalism messaging and response.
A 2019 study focused on web, social and internal communications of universities around the world. It concluded that "Research on public relations activities at public universities in the era of public information disclosure has found that public relations activities have well supported public services in accordance with the principles of good governance."
Excellent communication doesn’t have to be academic. While excellence theory provides a good example of the advantages of a consistent internal and external communication approach, do we need to study to understand why that makes sense?
If a company culture has internal communication challenges, is it tough to see how that could impact how the organization communicates externally?
If a company culture is primarily focused on how great they are and how the world needs to listen to them, do you think that could create challenges in how it creates external communications?
If marketing strategies are rooted in ways to overexplain, trick or lecture their audience, what does that say about a culture’s view of their most valuable assets?
Finally, if a company culture believes there is mutual benefit to be gained with the public (gaining insights, providing value, building relationships, being transparent, etc.), how can that hurt the organization?
If my mom asked me what type of communication I believe in, I wouldn't want to throw out terms like two-way symmetrical communication, but I'm sure she would be pleased to hear "mutually beneficial."
My wife (who is also in marketing) would be pleased as well.