Corporate Cringe

The problem of poor taste in communication.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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 somehow feel that it’s just not very good?

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

No, it’s the lack of something else.

It’s the lack of good taste.

Communication is the Language of Emotions

In PR, metrics and best practices are important. Instincts are not to be trusted, we think. While this approach is sound in spirit, there is more to communication than data.

Communication is highly situational. Communication is context. While feelings might hinder rational analysis, communication stems from our emotions.

Without that emotional layer, we know something’s off.
It’s human instinct.

Many have spoken to Alexa or Siri. I don’t know about you, but speaking with them makes me want to stop talking to them. Alexa and Siri have some emotional maturity to do before they pass the Turing test.

I wonder, how often do corporate communications pass the Turing test?

As professional communicators, we can convey our corporate messages by the book (as in no-one-will-get-fired-over-this) and still miss the mark by a mile.

The PR industry must be cautious in relying upon templates, scripts, clichés, automated messages, jargon, platitudes, hyperboles etc. No amount of data can support a “textbook approach” in corporate communication.

Emotions will always be our bottom line when it comes to PR and establishing human connections.

Organisations Must Learn To Speak Human

We’re all hardwired to communicate emotionally. You and I would have no trouble passing the Turing test. And this is why we all cringe when organisations speak to us in their corporate voice. 1As for more on Alan Turing, I recommend the film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It powerfully conveys the ethical dilemma of relying on statistical analysis to determine when and … Continue reading

Naturally, we feel uneasy when something is trying to communicate with us in a non-human manner.

So, why aren’t more PR- and communication professionals concerned about ensuring corporate communication sounds a bit more human?

Disappointed man in a suit, highly detailed, visual art, GTA5, Cover Art - Corporate Cringe
AI art. Prompt: “Disappointed man in a suit, highly detailed, visual art, GTA5, Cover Art.”

A few reasons come to mind:

There’s the fallacy of tradition; if an organisation has been doing something in a certain way for ages, then we convince ourselves that it must work well.

Also, corporate tonality is a form of art and, therefore, difficult to quantify.

How do we get it right?

Read also: 58 Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

Having worked as a corporate communications adviser since 2005, I’ve told CEOs that their strategies are plain wrong. I’ve told marketers that they’re hurting their brand from short-sightedness. I’ve told communicators that they’ve spent huge budgets on unnecessary activities.

After all, my clients pay me to tell them the truth and nothing but.

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

It’s rough. If you drench corporate communication with platitudes and uninspired, stale, and corny hyperboles — why shouldn’t that matter? I think we might suffer an industry-wide shortage of good taste.

Maybe we drown ourselves in corporate cringe since we’ve never really had this conversation?

We might adequately plan, execute, and measure our activities, but that won’t matter if our communication activities sound corny.

Read also: The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Speak

Examples of Corporate Cringe

Here, I admittedly take the cowardly route:

As a PR blogger, I can criticise everything from failed campaigns to poor crisis management. But I can’t compile a list of named organisations putting out corporate cringe. Such a list would likely make me a PR outcast.

Also, the list would be too long.

However, I can outline typical examples of corporate cringe:

1. When corporate communication is exaggerated to the point of tone-deafness. “No, your brand’s existence isn’t making people cry for joy. And they aren’t that devastated because of the type of problems you miraculously solve.”

2. When corporate communication makes ridiculous claims that no one believes anyway. “No, you’re not a leading-, revolutionary-, innovative-, or game-changing company. You’re only diluting the English language one shitty press release at a time.”

3. When corporate communication 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 cool works.”

4. When corporate communication gets lost in humble-bragging. “No, you didn’t just save the planet, so please stop patting yourself on the back so frantically.”

5. When corporate communication is telling people what to think. “No, never ever have I anticipated any of your products, nor do you know whether or not I will enjoy them or not. Last I checked, crystal balls didn’t exist.”

6. When corporate communication is trying way too hard. “No, screaming louder and making hyperbole claims won’t make me care more about your message. Why do you have to try so hard if you’re that great?”

7. When corporate communication has a bland tonality. “No, that doesn’t read the way you want it to; it reads as if written by a team of uninspired middle managers with no life spark left in them.”

Read also: Corporational Determinism: Grandiose Product Launches

Great Taste is a PR Skill

Unlike many other creative professions, corporate communications often seem oblivious to the importance of tonality. Our industry’s ignorance of what constitutes good taste is peculiar because we ought to know better. 2This is analogous to corporate storytelling: while we might be aware of the storytelling elements in theory, there’s still the challenge of telling a great story in practice.

We are communication professionals, after all.

Tonality isn’t just for copywriters. Look and feel isn’t just art directors.
Great taste is a PR skill, too.

But there’s a way out of this poorly lit tunnel of mediocrity. We’re in a position to mitigate cringe-worthy corporate messaging:

Never settle for uninspired PR messages. Or, if you’re blessed with a colleague with excellent taste, let them have their say.

Read also: Top 5 Communication Skills Everyone Should Know

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 As for more on Alan Turing, I recommend the film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It powerfully conveys the ethical dilemma of relying on statistical analysis to determine when and how often to act on gathered intelligence — without alerting the enemy that their encryption device was compromised.
2 This is analogous to corporate storytelling: while we might be aware of the storytelling elements in theory, there’s still the challenge of telling a great story in practice.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

.

Grab a free subscription before you go.

Get notified of new blog posts & new PR courses

🔒 Please read my integrity- and cookie policy.

Write B2B Blog Posts

Use my storytelling template (with action prompts) to create blog posts for B2B experts using The Outline Method. Including my 16-page How-To Guide, Demo Post, and professional feedback.

I've created the Venn diagram of corporate awareness to emphasise the importance of internal collaboration between public relations, marketing, and branding.
Most popular