There’s a reason the website “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” has caught on like wildfire. It taps into our basic insecurities — and the fact that deep down inside, we know these fears, more than anything else, are what hold us back and keep us from fulfilling our dreams.
Fears don’t just hold people back. They hold companies and brands back as well. As McKinsey & Company states in its CMO forum:
The age of co-creativity requires brands to connect with their customers. Larger, more risk-averse companies have generally had trouble embracing the uncertainty and risk that this new era of connectivity demands.
“Risk averse companies produce crap”
This “crap” factor applies not only to product innovation, but to moving beyond trite, one-dimensional marketing campaigns to embrace authentic, meaningful engagement with clients and prospects — in social media and on corporate blogs and websites.
So, who’s to blame for corporate America’s fear of sharing freely and being real?
It generally starts with the legal department.
First, Kill All the Lawyers
You see, corporate attorneys are trained to protect themselves and their clients against risk. Which is fine, except for the fact that in business, it’s difficult to succeed without taking on risk — especially today.
So when lawyers have too much influence on a company’s decision-making — particularly its marketing decisions — sometimes critical mistakes are made.
When a company makes the ultimate PR mistake by saying “No comment,” for example, there’s usually a risk-averse lawyer, not a PR person, to blame.
When Exxon committed one of the worst PR mistakes in history by not sending its CEO immediately to the scene of the Valdez oil spill, lawyers — not PR people — were behind the decision.
Now, in our post-modern PR world, overly cautious companies face even greater risks from attorney-driven PR. For example, corporate legal letters, intended to be private, are increasingly ending up online — effectively turning your lawyer’s most formal (and often snippy) communications into your brand’s public persona.
Let’s be real: things go wrong all the time. Brands that open their kimono, admit fault and work to fix the problem will engender good will and trust among consumers. Why? Human nature dictates that people have a hard time genuinely connecting with, being close to, or trusting other humans who appear to have no weaknesses, flaws or mistakes — and the same holds for brands.
A wise person once told us that a company’s position in its lifecycle can be easily ascertained by looking at who’s calling the shots in the executive team:
BIRTH: creatives such as inventors, engineers and scientists — to create the company;
GROWTH: sales and marketing — to generate new sales;
MATURITY: accountants, et al — for cost reduction and efficiency;
DEATH: lawyers — to handle M&A, bankruptcy or to finesse how to sell products at a price no longer justified by their actual value.
This insight is even more compelling today. In a world where your publics are demanding frequency and authenticity in communication, and expect your communication to be two-way, letting the lawyers do the talking will only serve to hasten your brand’s demise.