Anyone who has received an email from me may have noticed a rather abstruse quote as part of my email signature. It’s an observation by T.S. Eliot in which he asserts that “Being is intelligible only in terms of becoming.” I like it for two reasons. First, it’s derivative enough to demand that you ponder it a bit, like good poets are wont to do. But perhaps more importantly, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, which if you were to reduce it to a bumper sticker basically means “you are what you do.”
That’s really the essence of public relations. We spend a lot of time crafting words that convey just the right positioning and nuance, that promote our clients’ expertise, that tell compelling stories designed for others to take action. Don’t get me wrong, words matter.
But actions matter more. Brands are built not on the backs of slogans, but on what organizations do to demonstrate just who they are. The quality of their product or service – that’s what Eliot would say is “intelligible.” Both Southwest Airlines and Allegiant will get you where you need to go, but the experience that they create for their passengers is what informs our opinions of them. When Nike chose Colin Kaepernick to narrate its recent TV spot, our reactions – one way or another – were not focused on the aspirational copy that he was reciting, but simply the fact that that the company would deign to entrust its reputation to an erstwhile pro quarterback who is basically persona non grata in the NFL.
Then there are actions that companies do not take – like when Google decided to try to cover up a security glitch that had exposed the user data a half million of its customers. Are there words the company could use after the fact to change our perceptions about this lack of transparency? Does the fact that they called it “exposure” and not a “breach” make a difference in our minds? Their decision to try to skate by is what we’ll remember, and while it likely won’t compel us to move to Bing, the damage to its reputation is real and will likely endure for some time.
I got to thinking about all this the other day when reflecting on Michael M. Grynbaum’s excellent article in The New York Times, “Under Fire, Robert Mueller Has a Novel P.R. Strategy: Silence.” There is perhaps no single person in the country right now who is under as much scrutiny as the special counsel. And how has he responded to the white heat of attention? While the president has made criticism of the investigation a daily mantra, Mueller has kept his counsel, not uttering a single syllable in public, save for what is included in the 35 indictments he has issued to date. It’s the indictments themselves that are carrying his message, and they have been louder and more resounding than anything coming out of the White House. Actions vs. words. Mueller’s no-nonsense discipline extends to his communications strategy, and based on public polling, his approach is working: almost two-thirds of America support his work.
We had a client several years back whose goal was to exert its leadership in its community. It had been content to simply go about its regular work, serving clients, and it was good at what it did, but if its goal was to be known as a leader, they needed to do more than talk. We devised a half-dozen ideas that we recommended they get behind – all of them requiring that the organization take action. After all, how many leaders lead by words alone? But as it turns out, the company was not comfortable going outside its comfort zone and was not willing to take the risk that such actions could be criticized. And so, while they wanted to be known as leaders, they weren’t willing to do anything that would make people form that opinion of them. Action vs. words.
Being is intelligible only in terms of becoming. Actually, I think that would make a pretty good bumper sticker itself.