Thursday, November 5, 2009

Do Actions Really Speak Louder than Words?

I keep hearing communicators pass this on as sage advice when companies or people deal with a crisis. This irks me because it's only half the story. As a communicator, think about this: if actions DO speak louder than words, then why do you have a job?

This has been rolling around in my head for a while now. I started thinking about it after reading an article on strategic communication that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen wrote for Joint Force Quarterly. It's a good read, and America's senior military leader gets a lot right about how communications can be better. For example, he advocates knowing the context in which your actions will be seen and your messages heard. Bingo! He urges people to listen more so that you understand the population. Exactly. "A message isn't something that you launch downrange." Finally!

A sentence at the end, though makes me think that he misses a key point when it comes to using communications to achieve a mission objective (or a business goal). This is what he writes...
"...what we are after in the end—or should be after—are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us."
Here's the problem: In the case of Afghanistan, there is a relentless enemy that takes U.S. actions and twists, fabricates and lies to the population about what happened, what it means to them and what the U.S. "really" intends. The Taliban and al Qaeda have a communications arm that puts their messages out to the audiences they want to reach.

It's hard to win a war if you're not on the battlefield, communications or otherwise.

To carry out a business strategy (or mission objective), your operations AND communications have to be aligned to reach the goal. Actions almost never speak for themselves, especially now when media (traditional and social) bombard us with thousands of messages and images daily. (Full disclosure: Besides being a PR/Crisis Guy, I am a Navy Reserve PAO. I have not worked with Admiral Mullen nor had a part in the Joint Force Quarterly article. The views here are my own, not the military's)

So how do actions and communications work together? Think of it as a virtuous circle with each part reinforcing the other.

In a crisis, this circle of actions and communications working together is critical for a successful response.

Meaningful Actions + Lousy Communications = FAIL

Lousy Actions + Meaningful Communications = FAIL

Meaningful Actions + Meaningful Communications = Success

I know Admiral Mullen believes communications matter and that effective communications can take many forms. He has a Facebook page and a Twitter account and posts to both regularly.

So the question for communicators isn't, "Do actions really speak louder than words?" Rather, "Are your organization's actions worthy enough for your communications to make any difference?" You need to answer that question.

There is no better feeling for a PR pro than working with an organization that gets actions and communications right.

We communicators love the smell of key messages in the morning.

Bill Salvin

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