XTC 7/1 - Kicking the Tires: The Importance of Truth-Telling in Storytelling

Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons There’s an old English expression—if there’s a wasp in the room, I want to know where it is. And as somebody who was originally trained as a criminal prosecutor, I can attest to how important it is to know the location, size and severity of the skeletons in the closet. Normally, such issues come out during a standard crisis communications audit, and there are a number of sophisticated digital tools that can help companies anticipate a crisis and simulate what it would be like to be in one.

But all too often, we relegate crisis audits to large-scale corporate programs and forget to kick the tires on creative exercises like narrative development and thought leadership. We ask about what would sound compelling without probing deeply enough on what compelling evidence exists to back up our claims. One negative result is when an issue comes up out of left field that we’re not prepared for—a product doesn’t work the way it should, a company doesn't behave the way it should, or an executive says something they shouldn’t have. And an even more disturbing result is when some fundamental problem emerges that undermines the rest of the communications program—some latent reputational issue that casts a shadow of doubt over everything else the company says and does.

That's why sometimes the PR lead has to take off their promotional hat and put on their investigator’s cap. In the long run, PR success is best served by posing the most probing, difficult questions to get at the truth behind a company and its claims. Questions like:

  • What’s the one question you really hope you never get asked in an interview? And what’s the most honest answer to that question?
  • How is our customer base most likely to interpret our brand promise? And where are we most at risk for falling short of that promise?
  • Are we engaged in any activities that our customers don’t know about that would impact their decision to buy from us? And how would those actions most likely be perceived if they were to come to light?
  • What unspoken, implicit promises do our customers expect us to keep? And how are we doing with keeping those unspoken promises?
  • What’s the most likely crisis you can see emerging? And how prepared are we to deal with that crisis?

Unless we ask these questions, the communications campaigns we’re working on, no matter how creative or clever, can quickly be undone in a matter of seconds. Only by asking these questions can we as PR professionals equip our clients with the tools they need to respond to difficult issues with integrity and impact. And without the answers to these questions at hand, we run the risk that our communications efforts are reduced to spin, not persuasive argumentation of the truth.

XTC (Examining The Change) is a weekly column where B&O CEO Josh Reynolds explores the intersection of storytelling, leadership and technology.