Four Credibility Builders for Corporate Communicators

March 3, Roger Bolton

On Page Turner earlier this week, we posted the full text of Fortune Editor Alan Murray's remarks accepting the Larry Foster Award for Integrity in Public Communication from the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State.

To a room full of corporate communication executives, Alan acknowledged that "Some of my journalist colleagues think those of you in public relations are the enemy. But I've always felt that you and we are trading in the same currency—facts."

He allowed that, "You may withhold a fact every now and then, or pile up the facts so they tilt toward the storyline you are paid to present. And I may assemble the facts in a way that suits my notion of the perfect narrative—which may be no closer to reality. But at the end of the day, we both deal in facts. And the facts are the facts."

It was refreshing, frankly, to hear him acknowledge the twin realities that neither corporate spokesmen nor journalists are perfect. He then listed four factors that are affecting journalism:

  • In the internet era, anyone can publish "news," and not all are trained in or committed to journalistic standards.
  • Need for speed.
  • Bias.
  • Social feeds are aggregating content, replacing the role of the editor.

Perhaps those of us in corporate communication should take a look in the mirror, as well. What are the factors that keep us from being perfect? Here are my big four:

1. As Alan suggested, we are paid to present a point of view.

This is true, but that's not an excuse for ignoring journalistic standards. We must actively challenge ourselves and our organizations to verify facts, to take into account facts that don't fit our narrative and to disclose conflicts. We actually gain credibility when we respectfully acknowledge opposing views and inconvenient facts while making our best case for our interpretation of the meaning and importance of all the facts.

2. We are a part of the institutions we represent, so naturally we fall prey to the common tendency to group-think.

In any organization, no matter how much we encourage and prize diversity, people who work together, share a mission and have common experiences tend to think alike. We convince ourselves that we are right based on our narrow view of the world, and we become emotionally attached to being right. That's why one of the most important roles of the communication function is to develop relationships with all stakeholders and to listen to their perspectives with an open heart and mind. When we become convinced that our institution is wrong about something, it's our duty to fight for change. This, too, adds to organizational credibility.

3. We rely too heavily on the knowledge of internal experts.

No one knows more about our company and its issues, which can be very technical, than the experts within. It's easy to accept their assertions and claims as being authoritative. But sometimes they are wrong. The new widget is not actually the first or the best, or its performance may be less reliable than claimed. This is one of the toughest lessons for communicators, but we must examine our own enterprise's claims with the skeptical eye of a journalist. Sometimes, we must consult outside authorities. This level of scrutiny is sometimes resented by our colleagues, but it serves an essential function far more important than any individual claim, and that is to protect the credibility of our organization.

4. Need for speed.

Just as journalists feel significant pressure to publish quickly, we have the same pressures. Especially in a time of crisis, when we know that being slow can hurt the enterprise's reputation, we want to tell our story as quickly as possible. This can cause us to go public before we are sure of our facts. We must be careful to ask ourselves, what do we know, how confident are we in this information, and what do we not know? Sometimes, we will have to go public with uncertain or incomplete information. The best thing to do in that case is to be very clear about our level of confidence in the accuracy and completeness of our statements.

If our number one job is to build and protect brand and reputation, and I think it is, our top responsibility is to make our case with credibility. I'm sure there are other factors affecting both journalism and public relations. If you have additions to Alan's list or mine, please comment below.

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