Enron. ImClone. And now WorldCom. When lies, deception, and fraud in business hit the news again last month, Martin Wolk of MSNBC asked, “Are we a nation of greedy cheaters? Are lying and manipulation endemic in the higher echelons of the business world? We can hope they are not, but the enfolding scandal at WorldCom raises the question of whether a generation of business leaders has lost its way in the ethical forest.”
We can point fingers and decry this as shocking and disgusting—and it is. We can also consider it a personal wake-up call. Let’s face it, most of us have exaggerated a story, told a white lie, or bent the truth. The question is, do these seemingly harmless habits, fueled by tough competitive environments, have the potential to grow insidiously? Most people think so. Starwood Hotels and Resorts polled high-ranking corporate executives and found 67 percent believe a person who cheats at golf would probably cheat at business. Eighty-two percent of those same executives admitted to some type of cheating on the golf course—from minor things like improving a lie to more serious infractions like shaving strokes off a round.
Sissela Bok’s book, LYING, Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, chronicles all the justifications we have for lying—from protecting the sick and dying to “everybody’s doing it”—and concludes there is no real justification. Lies have a way of coming back to haunt people. She’s right. This is true in general and in marketing communications. Spin isn’t the answer. “The truth will out” more so today than ever before because with the Internet came instant electronic conversations—including chat rooms that challenge corporate claims. What we say (our marketing story) has to match what we deliver (the customer service reality).
Doc Searls in Cluetrain Manifesto: End of Business as Usual wrote: “Marketing has been training its practitioners for decades in the art of impersonating sincerity and warmth. But marketing can no longer keep up appearances. People talk. They get on the Web and let the world know the happy site with the smiling puppy masks a company with coins where its heart is supposed to be. They tell the world the company that promises to make you feel like royalty doesn’t reply to e-mail messages and makes you pay shipping charges when you return their crappy merchandise.”
Searls believes the market will find out who you are. “Count on it,” he said. “That’s why you poison your own well when you lie. You break trust with your own people as well as your customers. You may be able to win back the trust you’ve blown, but only by speaking in a real voice and by engaging people rather than delivering messages to them. The good news is that almost all of us already know how to talk like real people.”
The best communication identifies real core competencies customers value and seek. It expresses these honestly and simply. It doesn’t overstate. And it doesn’t stop with the product. An organization’s commitment to social responsibility and its record on customer service are strong stories to tell.
But what if you aren’t the best or there isn’t a strong story to tell? Do you make one up or sugar coat the truth? I don’t think so. Your first job is to find out what needs to be fixed and work to fix it. And to talk about what you are doing. Employees and customers respect honesty. The Avis marketing message, “We try harder,” is a great example of a No. 2 company being up front with its public and successfully differentiating itself in an honest, straightforward way. It works because “trying harder” is more than an advertising slogan. It’s part of their mission and customer service creed.
Several months ago I was talking to a senior executive who was retiring after a lifetime of achievement and service to Caterpillar. He said as he looked back over the years he saw some things he had done very well and some things he’d do differently if he had a chance. “But I can say with pride,” he said, “that I am known by all as a man of my word. What I would not change is my commitment to always tell the truth.”
Managers, marketers, communicators—all of us—would do well to aspire to his high standard. IBI