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What if they’re wrong … even some of the time?

“You’re discounting what scouts have done for 150 years …”Moneyball

Okay, I’ll admit it. For 30 years, I’ve been faking it as an authority on strategic communication and marketing. Despite years of experience, two degrees, academic publications and international accreditation, I don’t have the answers.

We live in a business world where to be smart means you know the answers, fast. To admit that answers cannot be fished immediately from your intellect is to risk being labeled a dullard; a perception that can get you fired or keep you from being hired.

To find success as an in-house expert and as a consultant, I’ve had to play along, to speak with confidence and self-assured authority. But my dirty secret is that I surreptitiously read books and conduct science-based research.

If you are a thinker or discoverer your competition is with the self-assured authority: That individual with decades of experience who can recite the rules, like:

  • Every public relations problem has a news media solution
  • Unpaid media is invariably more credible
  • We can’t compete with a small budget
  • Communication is an art, not a science
  • My target audience fits a perfect stereotype

Each of these myths can be exploded with science, but many companies keep that discipline locked safely away in the Research and Development Department. Business leaders are taught to rely on their own knowledge and the reassuring authority of consultants.

Public Relations, as a profession, is no different. We surround ourselves with comfortable rules based on the paradigms many of us brought from journalism. When we move to corporations, we find we’re expected to have immediate answers to every communication problem. And, if we’re great at sounding supremely confident in our prescriptions, we’ll go far.

But, every once in a while – particularly in times of crisis and down economies – measured results matter. Those times have great potential for the thinkers and discoverers of strategic communication. They provide the opportunity to challenge authority.

Ways of knowing

How do you know? This is a great first question to ask of anyone who provides a confident prescription to a communication problem.

Authority: This can come from the power of position, the longevity in a career field, or even a number of speaking engagements and bylined trade journal articles. Self-assured authority does not make right, but it can be immensely reassuring in tough times.

Intelligence: Education does not end with grad school. If Forrest Gump was right and stupid is as stupid does, the same applies to smart. Intelligence is about making well-informed decisions and actions, and that may begin with Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.”

Intuition: Do you rely on your gut, and visceral sense of what the facts are? You may be right, but what if you’re not? How lucky are you?

Observation: Do you rely on qualitative research: The results of focus groups or even anecdotal conversations with customers? While these observations are vital to success, they are dangerous if the sole basis for business decisions. The truth is, we cannot always correctly understand what we see or hear.

Measurement: Are you a surveys, charts and graphs person? Do you live and die with Excel pivot tables and a love for descriptive statistics? This is my comfort zone, and it can be risky. What if the numbers are correct, but the questions wrong? If taken alone, measurement too is dangerous if the sole basis for business decisions.

Scientific method

Put authority and intelligence aside and hang onto observation and measurement. With a healthy dose of creativity, these form the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal. But, don’t tell your competition, they’re likely relying on big budgets and big name authorities. I’d even avoid discussing it with your boss. What goes on in the kitchen can stay in the kitchen. Serve up a great steak, and no one will ask how you did it.


Post Author: Jeffrey Hutson