The Post-Truth False Choice: Stand Up or Lay Low

By | March 16, 2017

posttruth1In the post-truth era, seizing opportunity and limiting risk has taken on an entirely new meaning. Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with dozens of experienced communicators who are dealing with this new reality and the added complexity layered into seemingly every decision.

Many experts and commentators have cheered for more assertive and proactive communications that take risks in an effort to earn customer loyalty or bolster employee morale, inferring that there’s an almost moral choice to be made between “standing up” and “laying low.” But it’s my observation that this is a false choice, and the notion of two fundamentally different “philosophies” is a mirage.

When we think of high-profile cases – say, Airbnb’s open embrace of refugees or Lyft’s jabs at Uber – these aren’t the result of radically different communications philosophies, but different organizational realities. While it’s an awful lot of fun to be on offense, easy to cheer for those fighting the good fight, and a heck of lot easier to rack up earned media, the prism though which these decisions are made – consciously or unconsciously – hasn’t changed.

That’s because smart communicators evaluate every opportunity and risk – and always have – through the same four considerations:

1) organizational goals and needs,

2) institutional culture and values,

3) key audience and stakeholder demographics, and

4) impact on long-term brand.

My point here is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The world we’re operating in is the latest shift in the continuous evolution of our profession, not the death of objectivity and truth (and by extension, the experiences and skills we’ve acquired). Reflexive aggressiveness is still as ill-advised as reflexively laying low. But at a time when emotion and audience permission rules, we need to fight the instinct for hyperbole and inserting unnecessary emotion into our own processes. Ironically, as communicators, we’re called upon to be more sober, considered, and disciplined as ever, despite our mandate to create emotional connections with our stakeholders. Because if there’s one consistent trait I’ve noticed in organizations that have suffered missteps recently, it’s that they’ve let a misapplication of the “need” for assertiveness or the “need” to avoid the spotlight get in the way of good ol’ fashioned judgment.

In my next post, we’ll discuss more about the choice of “standing up” versus “laying low,” and how your organization might benefit from each. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: what matters most to your brand when choosing to “stand up” or “lay low?”

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