Artful messages

Robert Fulghum’s 1989 bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a hit because of the simplicity and practicality of his message. His advice for living a simpler and happier life ranged from “share everything” to “hold hands” and “stick together”. Comforting words to a complicated world.

Effective communications, whether corporate, social, political or marital, all benefit from a similar straightforward approach. Here are my four rules to quality communications: respect, candour, simplicity and timeliness. Everything else is gravy on the main course.

If people understood and embraced these foundational pillars, the world would be a better place. Poor communication is the cause of great corporate, personal and geopolitical strife.

Lack of respect, lies and distortion, muddled messages, and tardiness make a mess of what otherwise could be intelligible and compelling communications.

With human nature what it is, having these tendencies to bob and weave, and to avoid the inevitable will always be with us, so the mandate for communications professionals is clear: our job is to serve and protect. Through principled leadership and active engagement we serve our clients’ desire for innovative and timely communications solutions, while ever ready to protect the client from his or her mistakes and less-than-desirable inclinations.

Examining the four pillars

Respect

Respect is the basis of all healthy relationships. With respect comes appreciation, empathy and a desire to do what is right. An environment of respect is a breeding ground for success and goal achievement.

Candour

Telling the truth on a consistent basis is critical to maintaining the credibility of an individual or organisation. But what is truth? Absolute truth exits, but retrospectively piecing it together is part archaeological dig, part psychoanalysis. In practice, then, truth is a mosaic of facts, circumstance and recollections that form a picture. To discern the truth, the communicator must probe people’s memories and understand their motivations, just as a detective tries to solve a crime.

This area, arguably above all others, is where exceptional communicators stand apart from the mediocre. An exceptional communicator speaks truth to power, expressing concern and alternative approaches when people try to cut corners or shade the truth. An exceptional communicator has a keen sense of the big picture, not allowing short-term pain avoidance to cloud long-term goals. Finally, the exceptional communicator helps weave a spirit of integrity into the fabric of how an organisation or person interacts with various constituencies.

Simplicity

KISS (keep it simple, stupid) must be the credo of the effective communicator. Since only rocket scientists are rocket scientists, communicating simply is a virtue for all other audiences. (And even rocket scientists appreciate clearly communicated rocket sciencey-type information!) In practice, that means: stating clearly what the “news” or “message” is in written or spoken communications; having one main message buttressed by two to three facts or sub-messages; using as few numbers as possible (and when numbers are necessary, ensuring that the right numbers are provided and no further calculation is necessary (otherwise most reporters will get it wrong)).

Timeliness

Get on the plane or train before it leaves and your trip is off to a great start. Miss either by a second and you’re miserable. It’s the same with communications. News is called news because it’s new. Yesterday’s newspaper is great for the bird cage, but not much else … other than recycling, of course.
The key to timely communications is to maintain good relationships with reporters and be aware of the stories and topics that interest them, to be in sync with editorial calendars, and most importantly, to think strategically and plan ahead.

Melding science and art

Earlier in my communications career I used to say that communications (also known as public relations or media relations) “isn't rocket science, it’s just common sense”. That statement is technically true, but over time I've realised that it misses the point. The beauty of rocket science is that it is based on various absolutes: the laws of physics, not opinion or the vagaries of human nature. Through trial and error, scientists have discovered what will fly and what won't, or how much thrust it will take to lift a rocket of a certain size off the launch pad.

Communications, meanwhile, is relative. Communications is more art than science. People often do what they think or feel makes sense.

However, any activity that is premised on opinion and perspective with a dose of ego throw in is bound to have a great deal of variance in the finished product.

Therefore, the key to quality communications is to standardise the process where possible … to increase the science and decrease the art. That said, experience and judgment are the artistic factors that take a good communications programme and make it great.

Most of this essay was written while listening to Beethoven piano sonatas performed by acclaimed artist Richard Goode. Any proficient pianist can render the Moonlight Sonata and Waldstein pieces note for note, but it takes someone of Goode’s accomplishment to turn the prosaic into the sublime. Close your eyes and Goode is now Beethoven conveying his unfulfilled desire in the moody Moonlight.

Just as technical proficiency plus passion and creativity yields great music, thoughtful processes plus experience and judgment yields effective communications.

The case for strategic communications

To engage or not engage, that is the question. Most companies fly under the radar of public scrutiny, focusing exclusively on what they do best – making widgets, providing services and keeping their customers happy.
Meanwhile, others are high fliers, speaking at conferences, omnipresent on TV, flinging out news releases, getting quoted in articles and publishing commentaries in newspapers, all while trying to create value in their day jobs.
While the choice may not seem black and white, for today’s typical private equity or venture capital firm, the choice is obvious: active and thoughtful engagement is critical.

Every aspect of a firm’s business is impacted by its corporate brand, which is shaped by its level of public engagement:

Hiring talented employees

Attracting and keeping investors

Differentiating oneself from the competition

Attracting corporate partners and forming joint ventures

Managing and surviving government and public scrutiny

There once was a time when alternative asset managers could fly under the radar, but that moment has passed. Three factors have indelibly changed that: public pension money, high-profile transactions and private jets. With hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into private equity funds being used to buy brand-name companies like Hertz, Hilton and Harrah’s, it’s natural that the media and watchdogs would sit up and pay attention. But it’s the jets that really excite people.

A common journalistic mantra is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. People who own jets are comfortable, and therefore a target. The jets are not going away, and therefore the scrutiny and criticism is here to stay. Better to accept it, manage it and use it as a tool to differentiate your firm in the marketplace.  n

Christopher Ullman is a managing director and director of global communications at The Carlyle Group.

This was an excerpt from PEI’s recently released book, The Investor Relations Manual. For more info, visit www.peimedia.com/relations.