Psychotic Rats Don’t Build Great Brands

I heard a good lecture the other day on the importance of integrated communications (a.k.a., branding). It reinforced what I knew, but I enjoyed hearing it anyway.
The speaker emphasized that you should make sure everyone in your company, no matter who they’re talking to, says the same thing about what kind of organization you are. The consistency, and the repetition, helps to create a strong positive identity that serves as a kind of photo frame for your everyday communications. Otherwise, it’s like you’re starting from scratch every time you reach out to the public. Or, worse, you confuse them with contradictory messages so that you start from zero.
In the federal government, a good example is the contrast between the FBI and the CIA. They have each done a good job of defining themselves, so that you pretty much know an FBI-type when you see one and you know that the CIA-type is the complete opposite. All other differences aside, for me the key is the approach to mission – “inside the box” vs. “outside” it. Like in the movies “Miss Congeniality” (FBI) and “The Recruit” (CIA).
When a representative of the FBI says something, and the CIA says the same thing, the facts may be identical but the way you understand them will be completely different because you understand that not only are the missions of the two agencies distinct but so are their ways of doing business.
This is just common sense, really. But if this basic idea of communication is so simple, why do so many organizations get it so wrong?
In my view, frequently the problem is that double-bind organizational dynamics undermine the communicator’s ability to perform the basic tasks of their job. For example:
  • The communicator is tasked with providing facts to the public, but can’t seem to get clarity on where to get them
  • Documents must be approved, but the list of approvers for documents is unclear, ever-changing, or ever-growing
  • Documents must be well-written, but untrained writers who are subject matter experts in positions of authority edit for style, not just fact
  • The communicator is told to provide good customer service internally as well as to generate positive results externally, when frequently good communication is not necessarily understood or approved by the internal audience
  • The communicator is told to ensure consistency of voice, but people outside the communicator’s span of control, outside their office, and frequently higher in pay grade, have the ability to communicate on their own without restriction
Communicators aren’t magicians and they also need to eat. If you tie their hands behind their backs and then send them off to fight the war of public opinion, they will be defeated.  If they live in a chain of command, they are going to respond to authority and will not go to the mat for communication excellence at the risk of jeopardizing their job. Both of these issues, in my mind, are what really prevent organizations from building great brands.
Bottom line: If the organizational dynamics underlying communication are faulty, the communication will be faulty as well. It’s not just that you can’t dress up a bad policy. If the organization is dysfunctional, the communication will be too.
Looking at it from the 10,000-foot level, why do leaders set up their communicators to fail? Here are a few ideas:
  • Time pressure. They have operational problems to worry about, and communication is “nice, but there’s no time for fluff.”
  • Misconceptions about what professional communication is. E.g., that it’s “not a real profession,” that “the truth speaks for itself,” that “they’ll just figure it out and get it done” (with no resources, input, discussion, etc.).
  • Extreme thinking about communicators – either that they’re idiots (e.g., not worth wasting time or thought on – “just tell them what to do”) or magicians/geniuses who can do anything, because “all you need is an ad or a website.”
  • Resistance to communicating – they know that communicators are “like reporters” and will ask tough questions, and they have too much on their plate that would be uncomfortable to talk about. So they avoid dealing with them. Silence is the best policy anyway, they think, because “all this will blow over.”
  • Hierarchical thinking – the belief that communicators should just say what they’re told and not think; the belief that what the public says in response to the organization is irrelevant.
  • Organizational politics - there are so many forces inside the organization each wanting their own say that it would be politically impossible to rein them in. 
All of these are understandable – but the problem for the communicator is that they are tasked with a job but end up in a double bind. If you’re not familiar, in the workplace this is where boss tells employee to do something; employee sees a contradiction in the request; they can’t broach the topic with the boss due to the threat of punishment; and the employee can’t leave or escape. (In addition, the double-bind tends to be repeated with frequency.)
Somebody told me about an experiment with rats done decades ago, where the rats were given an electrical shock when they did a certain thing. Then they were shocked when they did the opposite. The rats went psychotic. I couldn’t verify this experiment online but it sounded like something that would happen if you did it to rats, or people for that matter.
Communication is the same way. If you want a good brand, support your communicators with a clear and achievable set of goals and the resources to achieve them. If you don’t care about the brand, then spend the money elsewhere. But either way, it doesn’t make sense to drive a good rat up the wall.
Copyright 2010 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.
(All opinions my own. Permission granted to repost with author attribution. Originally posted to my blog,

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