Why your comms should be honest, not nice

Andy warns against making promises you cannot keep in your digital content.

One plate with a sweet, one plate with a carrot.

Recently, a letter from Peterborough United Football Club to a young footballer caught my attention.

The letter was a fairly standard rejection letter, in response to a request for a trial. For most, the letter was notable in that the player concerned, Malcolm Christie, would be scoring goals for fun in the Premier League a few months later.

In the letter Peterborough’s Manager at the time, Barry Fry, thanks the player’s father for the letter, but apologises for the fact that the club aren’t currently holding trials. So far, so normal. It’s the final line of the letter that caught my attention; “... we will keep your letter on file for future reference.” 

You can see the logic behind the sentiment. Barry is attempting to dilute the bad news with a soothing balm of hope. The problem is that the hope is a lie. There is no possible situation in which that letter gets looked at again. It’s hope, but it is a false hope.

Seeing the letter reminded me of a situation earlier in my career where well-meaning communication didn’t achieve its aim and, worse than that, was damaging. 

The problem with making promises to customers that don't align with reality

A few years ago, I worked for a Local Authority. One of my jobs was to optimise the reporting form for highway faults. One of the primary reports sent in via the form was the location and size of potholes. On submitting your report, you were presented with a confirmation screen and email from the Local Authority, thanking you and making a promise to fix the pothole within six months.

As part of the team working on optimising the form, with a primary goal of reducing the volume of calls into the Customer Service team, this surprised us for a number of reasons.

First, we knew from our research that a high volume of the calls that we were trying to reduce, came from people chasing up repairs for potholes reported more than six months ago. Second, knew from our discussions with the Highways Maintenance team that fixing every single pothole somebody reported was unfeasible, let alone within the promised six month timeframe.

Here, by changing one single sentence there was a massive opportunity to reduce the volume of calls into the Customer Service team while saving taxpayer’s money. Our thinking was, if we simply updated the language in the form to reflect the reality of the situation, then we would be better at managing people’s expectations and cutting the number of calls.

Excited, we approached the project team with our findings. They were less excited, because what we hadn’t considered was that the team actively wanted to set that unrealistic expectation. In their view, telling the world that they could - and would - fix every pothole within six months, looked good from a political standpoint. Not only that, but they thought being honest about the situation and their capabilities would make the Authority look bad. 

The decision to look good was costing thousands of pounds per year, while also creating frustration within the community - but this was deemed a price worth paying for the perception of looking good.

The benefits of being open, honest and transparent in communications

The alternative, being open, transparent and honest, would have had a variety of benefits. First, by not setting an unrealistic expectation, you would reduce the volume of calls ‘chasing’ reports that hadn’t met the unnecessarily imposed deadline and would in-turn make huge financial savings. 

Second, would be the reputational benefits. It may be harder to quantify than the financial savings made by reducing call volume, but by not delivering on their promises the Local Authority was gradually harming their own reputation. With every pothole report, they were telling people, you can’t trust us to do what we say we will do.

Instead, they could have delivered ‘bad’ news in a way that explained the situation and the rationale behind it. A simple; “We’re sorry but due to the costs involved we are unable to fix every pothole that is reported to us…”, would have not only saved the Local Authority money, but also explained why that decision had been made.

Trust is something you can’t buy, but you also cannot put a price on the value of having earned it. Little sentences matter. Don’t attempt to maintain a false reality when what you could gain is long-term loyalty from people who see that you are honest and transparent. 

There’s value in content that is accurate and representative of the business reality

In summary, the point is a simple one; don’t lie. But, while it sounds simple, it’s easy to slip in little mistruths, or half-truths that might solve, or at least salve, a short-term problem, only to risk their pernicious effects reappearing in the future.

In a world where trust is falling, telling the truth as a business is invaluable.

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