Corporate Cringe

The problem of poor taste in PR is real.

I’m no stranger to corporate cringe.

Have you ever been in a situation where you take a step back and look at your company’s communication efforts and feel that it’s just not very good?

Maybe even without being able to put your finger on exactly why?

In many cases, it’s not for lack of effort.
Not for lack of strategy.
Not for lack of resources.

No, it’s the lack of something else.

It’s the lack of good taste.

The Hazards of a “Textbook Approach” to PR

In situations when corporate communication doesn’t sit right, most of us remain quiet. And it’s not difficult to guess why.

Firstly, we have the fallacy of tradition; if your company’s been doing something for ages, then it must be working well.

Secondly, we should all be careful of bringing up criticism when we can’t put our finger on precisely what’s wrong.

Thirdly, and let’s face it, as communication professionals ourselves, we might have contributed substantially to whatever it is that’s now rubbing us the wrong way.

In this digital era of ours, it’s easy to get carried away by wanting everything to be quantified. Instincts are not to be trusted, the paradigm suggests. While I agree with this approach in general, there are more to qualitative methods than just “gut feelings”.

There’s such a thing as a ‘textbook approach’ in corporate communication. You can do everything by the book (as in no-one-will-get-fired-over-this) but still miss the mark.

However, no amount of delicate font pairings or glossy tones can save cringe-worthy messaging.

What’s wrong here? Or are we just not seeing the emperor’s clothes?

Why is having great taste an underestimated PR skill?

Unlike many other creative professions, corporate communications have somehow phased out the importance of having great taste as an actual skill.

The ignorance of what constitutes excellent taste in our industry is peculiar because it’s not at odds with the textbook approach, not in principle.

We all have our tastes in everything from movies, music, and books to interior decorating, car design and vacation spots. Still, professionals will always separate themselves from the amateurs daily.

But in corporate communications, unfortunately, we seem to have misplaced the idea of great taste in communication entirely.

Also, if you’re anything like me, you might find it fascinating that so many talented (and well-paid) people have amounted to something so bland.

Having worked as a consultant with corporate communication, I’ve told CEOs that their strategies are plain wrong, I’ve told marketers that they’re hurting their brand from shortsightedness, I’ve told communicators that they’ve spent huge budgets on unnecessary activities.

All of this has been quite okay — after all, my clients pay me to tell them the truth.

However, tell a communications department that they have poor taste in communication and you’re out faster than anyone can slam the door behind you.

Why is corporate cringe so widespread?

In optimistic moments, I think that the enormous corporate cringe surrounds us because we’ve never really had this conversation. On darker days, I wonder about whether or not this could be the result of an industry-wide shortage of good taste.

From a personal perspective, I feel strongly about this. If your corporate communication is brimmed with platitudes and uninspired, stale, and corny phrasing — why shouldn’t that matter?

Every activity might be adequately planned, executed, and measured, but that doesn’t mean much if our communication activities are corny.

You say that it works fine and moves your business forward, but the way you speak to the world makes people cringe. Wouldn’t you want to know?

What are some examples of corporate cringe?

This is where I turn into a coward, I admit.

To make my message on corporate cringe clearer, I should include several real-life examples to illustrate my point.

But I won’t.

Being a PR blogger, I can criticise everything from failed marketing campaigns to mistakes in crisis communications. I can’t compile a list of companies putting out corporate communication that is bland and cringe-worthy; it would likely make me an outcast.

Plus, the list would be too long.

However, I can offer seven general types of corporate cringe:

1. Corporate communication that is exaggerated to the point of tone-deafness. “No, people aren’t that happy on account of your existence. And they aren’t that devastated on account of the type of problems you solve.”

2. Corporate communication makes ridiculous claims that no one believes in anyway. “No, you’re not a leading-, revolutionary-, innovative-, or game-changing company. At best, you’re only diluting our language.”

3. Corporate communication that is unintentionally dorky. “No, it’s not cool — and it never will be — cool to say that you’re cool. That’s not the way that works.”

4. Corporate communication that uses a sleazy marketing voice. “No, you didn’t just save the planet, so please stop patting yourself on the back so furiously.”

5. Corporate communication is telling people what they think. “No, I’m not loving your new products — and I think you should settle for ‘moderate enjoyment’ if the truth is of any importance.”

6. Corporate communication is simply trying way too hard. “No, screaming louder and making stronger and stronger claims won’t make me care more about what you’re saying. If you’re that great, why do you have to try so hard?”

7. Corporate communication with a bland tonality. “No, that doesn’t read the way you think it does; it reads as if it was written by uninspired middle-managers who somewhere along the way lost touch with reality.”

Recognise these?

The way out of this dark tunnel of mediocrity and corporate cringe is straightforward:

Speak up. Or, if you have a colleague who happens to be blessed with excellent taste, let them have their say.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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