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No News is Bad News

Imagine you need to revamp your Employee Referral Program. This program bonuses employees who refer new hires. Very few employees are referring anyone. The program is all but defunct – if it was gone, few would notice. Somehow it needs new life. You suggest putting out a company-wide communication stating that until further notice, the program would be immediately suspended. The team repeats what you already know – the policy is not well-known, and few care about it. More reason to put out so drastic an announcement, you reply. Communicating that the policy was flawed and the company was immediately "suspending" it would instantly draw all eyes on the policy. When ready to relaunch it, it will have much more attention than had it been merely revised and put back out. Your team looks at each other, and nodded in agreement.

In the 1920’s, Edward Bernays, a distant nephew of Sigmund Freud, knew the power of communication and messaging. He profoundly wrote in his work, “Propaganda”:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Bernays had a rather “shady” fan, Joseph Goebbels, who used his theories to propel the Third Reich into power. Watch “Triumph of the Will”, and you will understand what powerful messaging can do to rally people together for good or evil. Even today, that shocking Nazi Propaganda film is frighteningly mesmerizing.

Bernays and Goebbels used positive messaging to shape people’s thinking. They knew that by communicating powerful images, words and messages, they could build followings of unprecedented size and power.

In the business context, depending on one’s goals, I have observed that negative publicity/messaging can be just as beneficial as positive.

I remember more than one daily "stand up" at a particular hotel I helped open in DC, where we had to prepare for additional guests and traffic because of the latest tweet, statement or "presidential" topic. Any publicity was good publicity - we learned that firsthand.

Back in the 1990’s, Hyatt was busy fighting through union negotiations with Unite-Here. The Chicago Hyatt, in particular was the lynchpin for the city and, some would argue the nation, for such negotiations. While there was some pain from boycotting and some lost business, the property also gained notoriety and clientele – people appreciated being part of history.

In all honesty, I do not read our President’s tweets, but I watch and hear people’s reactions to them. It seems his “spins” are not intent on brainwashing or even influencing those who would read them. His tweets seem meant to stay in the headlines. He writes to stay in the news. I would suggest that it makes no difference whether you tweet something positive, negative or inflammatory; clearly what someone tweets can keep them forever top of mind. Supporters, detractors or general readers are exposed to the outbursts – whether they are nonsensical, profound, negative or positive. Whether you are for or against them, what happens to politicians who are top of mind? They get reelected.

So what does this have to do with business or Human Resources? Before panicking about what people say, write, tweet or e-mail, think about the effect of the communication. Analyze the effect of the communication before trying to counter it or squash it. It may turn out that if you step back and count to ten, whatever that communication is may do nothing more than put your organization in the limelight. Is that not what you want? Sometimes nothing is better for business than being right there – top of mind.

So monitor your image and know what is being said about your organization; just be sure that SOMETHING is being said! Silence is golden - but not in business.

Photo credit: SNL and TV Guide

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