By Adnan Bashir
To this day, it never ceases to amaze me how the most pertinent of lessons can come from the most unlikely of sources. While it’s true that excellence and growth are engendered by trial-by-fire moments that force us to adapt, think on our feet and hone our skills to a fine edge, they can also come about from the humblest of statements and by being reminded of the basics that often get overshadowed in our day-to-day routine.
This particular lesson comes courtesy a 78-year-old former Senator from Delaware, former Vice President of the United States and the current, 46th President of the United States. As I was perusing a recent report in The New York Times, highlighting Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda for his first hundred days in office, there was one part in particular that stood out and it was this: He relishes freewheeling discussion, interrupting aides and chiding them for what he deems overly academic or elitist language. “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me,” he likes to say, according to aides. “If she understands, we can keep talking.” Aides made a point of editing out all abbreviations other than U.N. and NATO.
And that, right there, is something that speaks volumes. Simplicity. Transparency. No spin, and an innate urge to respect the audience. This sense of forthrightness and empathy for the public is something that every individual with a platform or any level of agency – whether you are a business executive, a community leader or an elected official – should have.
As a communications executive and former journalist, I’ll be the first in line to say that the value of clear, concise and consistent communication cannot be emphasized enough. From quixotic brand campaign slogans to the exhausting use of convoluted buzzwords and non sequiturs, the concept of straight talk seems to elude many business leaders. As someone who has spent time in close proximity to chief executives, I can personally attest to this. I have had to overhaul brand campaigns for Fortune 500 organizations. I have had to redo briefing books from scratch, at a moment’s notice. I haven’t even mentioned retraining CEOs and taking them back to the fundamentals, even though they supposedly, in their own words, had ‘years’ of media experience under their belt.
According to Weber Shandwick’s The State Of Corporate Reputation In 2020 report, 58 per cent of CEOs said that a company’s reputation hinged on its ability to communicate and deliver upon its mission, vision and values. I’m sure that all of us would agree that no-nonsense, unambiguous communication is foundational to this principle, during both the good times and the bad. However, what we see fairly often is that good intentions and sound business strategy often get derailed by nebulous, supposedly ‘visionary’ marketing slogans, aimed at both internal and external audiences – with the result that the core meaning gets lost. What happens is that you are also confusing those most impacted by your business – your employees, your shareholders, your customers, industry analysts and even government regulators.
“Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me. If she understands, we can keep talking.” Words for the moment and words to live by. With the residual effects of disruption and uncertainty still being felt from 2020, people everywhere need reassurance from the top more than ever. Perhaps we would all be better off by taking a leaf out of Joe Biden’s book. It’s time to move beyond the boardroom and use a different sounding board. The next time you conceptualize your next brand campaign or social media hashtag, draft your next press announcement or an internal employee memo, assemble a major keynote presentation or craft an executive speech, ask yourself: “Would my aunt understand this?”, “Would this really resonate with my family at the dinner table?”, “Perhaps I should run this by someone over the weekend and see what they think.” A cacophony of assenting voices in a corporate echo chamber will do you no favours, nor win you any friends.
This is how we strengthen brand relatability and brand recall – and build public trust. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021, trust was higher in business, compared to other sectors, in a majority of the countries where the respondents were surveyed. The same study also revealed that employers are the mainstay of trust in a majority of the countries. Hearing this should be a rallying cry for marketers and communicators everywhere, and something for them to seize on. It’s time for all of us, across all industries, to step up and emphatically demonstrate that we are worthy custodians of this trust. It’s time for all of us to do better. If you have a public voice, it’s nothing less than a duty to use it responsibly.
With this being said, do not muddy the waters. Drop the pretence, the unnecessary verbiage, the excessive wordsmithing. Do not oversell and overpromise. There is tremendous value in authenticity. Make a genuine effort to read the room and understand your audience. Let transparency, empathy and respect for all your stakeholders’ reign supreme. It’s a simple lesson that does not require a shiny public relations accreditation, a vanity membership in a chartered association, attendance at an industry seminar, or untold thousands in costly consultant fees, to comprehend.
About the Author
Adnan Bashir is a Toronto-based communications executive, C-Suite advisor, strategist and former journalist. He has advised CEOs, government officials and nonprofits alike on communications strategy and messaging, and led campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, start-ups and nonprofits worldwide. In his current role as Senior Manager for Global Corporate Communications at Hansen Technologies, he oversees external, executive and internal communications worldwide for the software firm. Prior to that, Adnan worked at FleishmanHillard and Golin. His consulting expertise spans the technology, telecommunications, government, healthcare, energy, logistics, education and financial services sectors.
-  “Biden Seeks Quick Start With Executive Actions and Aggressive Legislation,” The New York Times, Jan. 16, 2021.
-  “The State of Corporate Reputation in 2020,” (PDF file) 2020, https://www.webershandwick.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/The-State-of-Corporate-Reputation-in-2020_executive-summary_FINAL.pdf
-  “Edelman Trust Barometer 2021,” (PDF file) 2021, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf