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the things we think but do not say

by Will Mapplebeck

Remember the start of Jerry Maguire? For the few who haven't seen Cameron Crowe's much quoted 1996 rom-com, it starts with sports agent Jerry, played by Tom Cruise, frantically writing what he calls his mission statement at 1am in a Miami hotel room. He writes all night, pleading for a better more ethical sports business, hands it out and promptly gets the sack.

The memo is called 'The Things We Think But Do Not Say'.

Jerry worked in the high pressure, high stakes world of what Americans call sports, I work in local government communications - it's not exactly the same but Jerry's maxim holds true - there are lots of things that we think, but do not say. My argument is that it's time to start speaking up.

I think that at their best communications people are an organisation's critical friend, giving advice that may not be universally popular and reminding it of its moral obligations.

This might not be easy, as comms people we have the privilege of working closely with some pretty powerful people who are used to getting their own way. But it's time to swallow hard, speak up and throw a comms spanner in the works. Here's a couple of examples.

Let's start with that old classic - the need to apologise. Let's be honest, we've all had examples of dealing with an officer who doesn't really want to say sorry. Sometimes its because of legal implications or because they've had a poor personal relationship with the complainant.

It's quite simple, where you've wronged someone, damaged property or been careless, just say sorry.

There's a moral point here, but a common-sense point too, say sorry publicly and you lance the boil - don't give them room for come back just do a Mea Culpa. Do it gracefully and make it heartfelt. It makes sense from a PR and organisational perspective.

Another thing, the issue of plain English. Don't for God's sake let politicians or officers pepper your writing with words bought they back from a management training course. Remember your audiences and get them to understand how alienating a public with obscure language could have negative PR consequences.

I'm not suggesting inflexibility, I'm still recommending listening and then giving a measured response based on professional expertise - but let's stop rolling over and remember that we are the experts and that the advice we give isn't about being awkward, it's about protecting and enhancing our organisations' reputation.

This approach might not make you popular, it won't make you any more employable in a tough job climate - although I doubt it will lead you down Jerry's path to instant unemployment - but my argument that if you want communications to be a 'force for good' and a challenge to either a secretive or arrogant culture then it's vital to speak your mind and give your honest opinion.

And if you want some inspiration, just do what do what Jerry the drop-out copy store clerk says when Jerry drops off his mission statement for printing - "that's how you become great, man...

Will Mapplebeck is senior communications manager at Newcastle City Council

photo credit


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