Maslansky: It’s The Symbols, Stupid

Question Marks
Question Marks

Multimillion-dollar compensation packages. Private jets. Hormones in milk. Plastic water bottles. Chemicals in baby products. High credit card rates. Retention bonuses.

What do these things have in common? They come from different industries but each represents a common set of challenges that corporations now face. Each is a symbol – a shorthand representation of a much larger ideological perspective. Each tells a story without having to say a word.

For better or worse, symbols now dominate the debate:

Congressmen try to embarrass executives by asking them why they took private jets to their hearing on Capitol Hill rather than trying to grapple with the real issues at hand as a means toward a positive end.

The media competes for viewers and readership by telling the simplest, starkest stories – not the most detailed explanations of complex subjects.

And the same holds true for the new generation of influencers who spread their opinions 140 characters at a time via social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

Public avenues for symbol-driven communication are so viral and instantaneous that these symbols have increasing power to drive public opinion, drive legislative action, and dramatically impact the way companies do business.

Simply put, symbol-driven communication is the new reality.

The problem for most companies is that they are either unwilling – or simply unprepared – to deal with the new world of symbol-driven communication. For years, companies felt they could ignore many or most of these attacks, but today the rules have changed.

There is no ignoring symbols. The question for companies then becomes how to credibly participate in the dialogue, even when the symbols are stacked against you.

1. The truth will not set you free. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s going to buy you forgiveness. What frustrates so many executives is that symbols can be, at best, overly simplistic and, at worst, completely misleading. They don’t rely on logic for their value; rather, they often defy it.

In the face of negative symbols, most organizations believe they can “set the record straight” if only they can get their customers to understand their point of view—the “truth.”

Witness Wells Fargo’sfull-page ads defending its decision to reward salespeople with a trip to Las Vegas. Or AIG defending over $165 million in “retention bonuses”at the very time it was receiving taxpayer money to simply stay afloat. And Citibank defending a $10 million renovation of CEO Vikram Pandit’sexecutive suite by citing a global space-saving initiative. None of them worked.

2. It’s not your truth that matters. Most organizations are an echo chamber for a point of view that is consistent with the organization’s mission. It is more subtle than “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Instead, it is a worldview, and it is supported by facts, data, customer insights and lots of personal experiences. It is often combined with an internal lexicon that is made up of industry jargon, organizational acronyms and other shorthand language that people outside the company can’t easily grasp. Taken together, we call this “your truth.”

Unfortunately, in almost every situation we have been involved with, the organization’s customers, critics, and the public at large, have a different truth, supported by a different set of facts and experiences. We call this “their truth.”

The problem for many organizations is that they assume their view of the world is shared by others—that “your truth” is somehow “the truth.” The reality: they are wrong. The more important reality: only one view of the truth matters—the public’s.

Want the public to agree with you? Don’t try to change their view of the truth. Instead, companies must learn to accept the public’s worldview and find messages, and symbols, that work within it.

3. Show and Tell, But Mostly Show. Words matter … but they’re not always enough. At my firm, we specialize in finding the right words to help companies effectively and credibly communicate just about anything. But we must often make it clear to our clients that words in the absence of deeds—meaningful deeds with symbolic value—will fail. It doesn’t take an expert to understand that saying the right thing only gets you so far.

The American public wants to see companies demonstrate responsibility. In the financial services sector, they want to see how these companies have changed lending practices to ensure that bad borrowers don’t get loans in the future. And they want to see that compensation practices are changing to recognize the new reality. If you can’t point to specific examples of how you’re making your actions align with your rhetoric, you will be called on it.

4. Stand for something. When communicating in symbols, you must create…symbols. Symbols are the result of actions and cannot be merely spoken into existence. You have to do something to create something. The same is true when it comes to symbols.

Now more than ever, companies must actively think about the positive symbols they can create in the absence of attacks by critics. These positive symbols may be the only thing left that can inoculate a good company in the face of a bad situation. In some cases, these symbols are built into a company’s brand. In other cases, they require companies to commit to something new. In nearly all cases, the quality of the products a company creates is not enough. For all of the lives it saves, the pharmaceutical industry is a great example of a company that creates incredible products but few, if any, positive symbols.

Taking control

Symbols are nothing new. We’ve used them since the beginning of human communication to share ideas, points of view, and even feelings. But in an era where symbols are slowly replacing fact-based, deliberative debate on ever more significant issues, those who “get it” and respond accordingly will stay in the game.

My firm was built on the belief that “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” That simple saying has never been more true. Say what you will, but if you’re not actively thinking about how everything you say and do sounds and looks to the public, you run the risk of falling prey to fatal facts and sinister symbols every time.


Michael Maslansky is CEO of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, a corporate and public affairs market research firm that specializes in language and messaging. Michael has conducted extensive research to understand how to most effectively communicate about issues, brands and products. Read Michael’s blog: www.michaelmaslansky.comor follow him: