Here’s a plea from one communications professional for us all to share, and learn, from our failures.
By Louise Powney
Parp! What’s that sound? Why, it’s a communications professional tooting their own horn at a conference! Parrrrrp!
We’ve all been there. Sitting in the audience, stupefied by a word-rammed PowerPoint (why do comms people write such appalling PowerPoints?), hearing about that campaign that has had a few awards thrown at it, the one that worked out exactly as planned.
Am I the only one staring grimly at the steeply ascending bar chart thinking: you should be thanking luck rather than science for that.
Putting aside the quasi-magic of the Behavioural Insights Team, with its random control trials and brain-box boffins, so much of what we do in comms is informed by “that didn’t go too wrong last time, let’s do it again!”. You can bang on about the “insight” you gathered until you’re blue in the face, but unless you’re David Halpern, I’m not listening. Pulling a couple of spreadsheets off a database is not insight, it’s what the name says: data. It’s just a load of numbers that don’t lend qualitative heft to anything.
I don’t care about the success that you claim was so carefully orchestrated; I want to know what went wrong. I want to hear about the campaign calamity, the Facebook fiasco, the social media snafu. You want to know why? Not because I have a black heart brimming with schadenfreude but because I will actually learn something useful; which is exactly what I’m not going to do from the gilt-edged examples that are dragged across conference stages like overfed show ponies.
Time and time again I have written on feedback forms that sharing bad experiences at future events would be useful; time and again I am treated to more “best” practice. So why is there this reluctance to share what didn’t work the way you wanted them to? Why is there this reluctance to, let’s face it, show ourselves to be vulnerable?
In his latest book, Black Box Thinking, former Olympian turned sports journalist Matthew Syed explores the value of learning from our mistakes. He identifies the industries and professions that are very good at this (airlines) as well as the ones that are bad. Healthcare is a fine (terrible?) exemplar of the latter because of the power held by doctors and the paralysing fear experienced by the non-clinical underlings who should tell them to improve practices when (sometimes fatal) errors are made.
Communications is guilty of lesser yet comparable crimes. Despite outsiders thinking that communicators need to be bellowing impervious ersatz Malcolm Tuckers, communications, whatever the stripe, is a delicate profession. Regularly responding to the foibles of the people we serve, we find that these foibles are often based in fear of being perceived as vulnerable. And unfortunately, as fear so often is, this is contagious and is regularly caught by comms teams: we can’t be seen to be wrong either, so won’t admit when plans did not pan out.
I would go further: this way lies danger. Not owning up to or owning your errors is a characteristic of narcissism, a personality type that should ring almost as many warning bells as psychopathy. Would you believe or trust someone who claimed that they were right all the time? No, neither would I.
So, cherish your mistakes. Don’t treat them as a dirty secret. Give them the occasional airing so the rest of us can benefit. Think of it as getting some last-gasp ROI.
Remember: no-one’s laughing at you, in fact we’re probably relieved to be laughing with you because it’s all too familiar.
Louise Powney is a communications officer in the north west and a former newspaper reporter
image via Flickr creative commons