Industry Update
Opinion Article23 September 2020

‘What Are You Trying to Say?’

By Conor Kenny, Teacher, Trainer, Writer, Founder of conorkenny.com

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When a sudden and unexpected storm hits our shores, our business and our brand, how we communicate and what we say, becomes even more important.

What we see, what we hear, what we believe, depends on where we stand. It is the high octane internal fuel that drives our thoughts, actions, and even our words. Like a fast turbocharged sports car, it can be great fun in skillful hands. In the wrong hands, it can cause permanent damage.

George Bernard Shaw said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place".

In a pandemic world, this is even more relevant. It is a time of high emotions, anxiety, fear, and frustration. It is also a time to be very careful with what we say, how, and to whom.
If our words and actions are toxic then we will remember them.

The Dilemma
Political PR is very good at creating an aura of power, authority, and knowledge. It's not so good at reminding us that our political leaders are human and incomplete.
When an unknown pandemic strikes, like all of us, they too are just as caught in the headlights. Perhaps their own spin haunts them or perhaps we are better to understand they are just like you and me. What is beyond doubt, is they are doing their best.

Doing Their Best
Doing their best means imperfect. Doing their best is subjective. Today, if you were a pub without serving food, it would be easy to understand why you would disagree. On the other hand, if your life had been saved and you had time to reflect on the step-down facilities the Government bought in to, perhaps you'd see it differently.
'Doing their best' is a general term. 'Doing what you want', now that's a different story.

Messages
This pandemic has not been kind to the strategists and planners in the public sector. It's not long ago that Wuhan, a city with a population the size of Ireland, was some remote place coping with some kind of a virus that vaguely grabbed our attention. Fast forward to February this year and we felt like the victims of an inevitable tsunami waiting helplessly on the beach.

With no time to lose, every available resource was thrown into bolstering our defenses. That included their messages and communications.

What Are You Saying?
We were bombarded with new terms and expected to create new habits in days.

No handshakes, wash your hands, Zoom, Webinar, social distancing and NPHET, became part of our daily dialogue.

A lot to process and then came the daily briefings of the calm, measured, and perfectly balanced Dr. Tony Holohan. A man who epitomized leadership and integrity and gave us all a feeling of being in safe hands. Unexpectedly, a stark, sad, reminder that even the best doctors, professionals, and leaders, are human. Dr. Holohan needed to take time out to take care of his wife. He too was as vulnerable and as fallible as the rest of us. In itself, that was a powerful message.

To The Point
Good messages are short, sharp, and clear. Bad, or vague messages, confusion and distort and a wonderful quote by Kristin Cashore really sums up what to do when we don't understand something. She said. - "Do you understand? I don't want you to do a thing if you don't understand".

That is a message we could all do with putting in our pocket.

What Did You Hear?
Why something has not been heard or said, has a lot to do with emotions, denial, the choice of words, and what people want to hear and believe. Add in our own inner conflicts, politics, cultures, values and the cocktail can be dangerous.

That's the challenge of effective objective communication, making sure that what we meant to communicate is what is received and that we are, in fact, saying it.

In the midst of the terror of a pandemic, what we say and how we say it needs even more management, and especially our best self-management.

The Psychologists Say
Irish people are a compliant race. It's in our nature to be accepted, to do what is right, and to do it with good cheer. Inevitably, a small few will upset the apple cart and a few bad apples will steal the limelight along with eating some of the good apples too.

It's a balancing act between 'Don't do this' and 'Get back to normal'. Too much negativity will become rebellion. Too much freedom will cause death.

It's tough on the authorities.

In the United Kingdom, we saw the total confusion, misunderstanding, and mayhem that occurred when they changed their COVID messages a little too much.

Inconsistency is rocket fuel to confusion and confusion leads to panic.

Your Brand
It is inevitable that fatigue drifts silently in. Fatigue with bad news, lockdowns, restrictions, and more. Interested groups can lash out understandably when the instructions don't suit them, or their constituency. Neutral people will not be impressed and, because they are neutral, they will always be drawn to the greater good versus a sectional interest.

When this is your brand, this matters, and their judgment is based on what you say and how you are saying it.

Your brand is what we think about you when we are not there.

Leadership
We all have our own style of communication - direct, gentle, arrogant, confrontational, measured, rational, aggressive, considerate, patient, kind, understanding, unpredictable, and so on. Our style is our brand and in any communication, even though we may never meet, we already think we know you and we certainly have formed an opinion - right or wrong. It is what we now believe.

The pandemic has ripped the carpet out from under many businesses, none more so than hospitality.

Over the last few weeks, social media appears to have taken to steroids. In the beginning, it was overflowing with praise and love for our front line workers. As businesses digested the shock, that moved to innovation and restarting. Lately, as expected, the shift has turned, in many cases, to anger, frustration, and explosive tweets.

And whilst any fair-minded person can have sympathy for a business still closed, few will ever applaud a message or leader, that talks about the loss of income or money over the greater good of public health.

Whatever authority decides will, by its very nature, have an opposing perspective.

That is a conundrum that faces everyone. What we say is in our control. What people think of what we say, is not.

Sometimes, late-night wine spilling over a furious keyboard can leave a long-lasting stain.

That will tarnish your brand forever. Maybe it might be better left until the morning?

As Abraham Lincoln said - "Never regret what you don't write".

And it is unlikely you will ever regret not saying it, especially if it is something driven by negative emotion.

Conor Kenny

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