Corporate Cringe

The problem of poor taste in communication.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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.

I. Communication = The Language of Emotions

In PR, met­rics and best prac­tices are essen­tial. Instincts are not to be trus­ted, we think. But 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. 1For more on the invent­or Alan Turing, I recom­mend the film The Imitation Game star­ring Benedict Cumberbatch.

  • Most cor­por­ate com­mu­nic­a­tion would­n’t 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 regard­ing PR and estab­lish­ing human connections.

II. 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. 

Naturally, we feel uneasy when some­thing is try­ing to com­mu­nic­ate with us non-humanly. 

  • Why aren’t PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als more adam­ant about cor­por­ate com­mu­nic­a­tion sound­ing more human?

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. 

Read also: 58 Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

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

How do we get it right?

III. An Industry-Wide Shortage of Good Taste

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. 

If you drench cor­por­ate com­mu­nic­a­tion with plat­it­udes and unin­spired, stale, and corny hyper­boles — why shouldn’t that matter? 

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

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

  • I some­times won­der if we suf­fer an industry-wide short­age of good taste.

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.

Perhaps we’re drown­ing ourselves in cor­por­ate cringe since we’ve nev­er had this conversation.

Read also: Corporational Determinism: Grandiose Product Launches

IV. Examples of Corporate Cringe

Examples of Corporate Cringe

Many cor­por­ate texts are writ­ten in bad taste. Unlike many oth­er cre­at­ive pro­fes­sions, cor­por­ate com­mu­nic­a­tions have some­how for­got­ten that hav­ing great taste is an actu­al skill.

Here are some typ­ic­al examples of cor­por­ate cringe:

  • Over-exag­ger­a­tion. Corporate mes­sages are often tone-deaf due to excess­ive emphas­is or embel­lish­ment. “No, people aren’t that excited on account of your new piece of news.
  • Implausible claims. Communications that present dubi­ous asser­tions can erode cred­ib­il­ity and gen­er­ate unne­ces­sary scep­ti­cism. “No, you’re not a leading‑, revolutionary‑, innovative‑, or game-chan­ging company.”
  • Unintended awk­ward­ness. Corporate com­mu­nic­a­tion will often inad­vert­ently appear clumsy or out of touch, cre­at­ing a dis­con­nect with the inten­ded audi­ence. “No, it’s not cool — and nev­er will be — cool to say you’re cool. That’s not the way that works.”
  • Excessive self-glor­i­fic­a­tion. Communications that overly focus on an organ­iz­a­tion’s achieve­ments or vir­tues can be per­ceived as insin­cere or self-con­grat­u­lat­ory. “No, you didn’t just save the plan­et, so please stop pat­ting your­self on the back so furiously.”
  • Prescriptive mes­saging. Corporate com­mu­nic­a­tion that dic­tates opin­ions or beliefs can be per­ceived as overly con­trolling and may ali­en­ate audi­ences. “No, everyone’s not lov­ing your new products or services.”
  • Overzealous efforts. Striving too hard to impress or engage can res­ult in com­mu­nic­a­tion that feels inau­thent­ic or con­trived. “No, scream­ing louder and mak­ing stronger and stronger claims won’t make any­one care more about what you’re saying.”
  • Monotonous ton­al­ity. Corporate mes­sages that lack dis­tinct­ive­ness or per­son­al­ity can fail to res­on­ate with audi­ences, lim­it­ing their over­all impact. “No, your con­tent reads as if it was writ­ten by unin­spired middle man­agers who lost their pas­sion some­where along the way.”

By being cog­niz­ant of these poten­tial pit­falls, organ­iz­a­tions can refine com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies to ensure more authen­t­ic and effect­ive engage­ment with their stake­hold­ers, influ­en­cers, and pub­lics.

More examples: https://www.reddit.com/r/corporatecringe/

Learn more: Corporate Cringe

V. Great Taste is a Basic PR Skill

Unlike many oth­er cre­at­ive pro­fes­sions, cor­por­ate com­mu­nic­a­tions often seem obli­vi­ous to the import­ance of being … taste­ful. 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. 

Read also: Top 5 Communication Skills Everyone Should Know

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:

  • If you’re blessed with a col­league with a sense of taste, let them have their say — even if it some­times hurts to have your ton­al­ity critiqued.

Join the fight. Never settle for unin­spired PR messages. 


Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Symptoms of Platitude Sickness

Symptoms of Platitude Sickness

Getting rid of cor­por­ate plat­it­udes is an uphill battle. They are such a waste of edit­or­i­al space and only lead straight to mediocrity.

Here’s my “trig­ger list” of plat­it­udes to watch out for:

  • Synergy. Overused to the point of becom­ing mean­ing­less, it refers to the coöper­a­tion of two entit­ies to pro­duce a com­bined effect great­er than the sum of their sep­ar­ate effects.
  • Leverage. In a busi­ness con­text, this is often used to mean using some­thing, such as a resource or an advantage.
  • Disruptive. Refers to tech­no­lo­gies or innov­a­tions that dis­turb estab­lished mar­kets or processes.
  • Pivot. This means a fun­da­ment­al shift in strategy or approach but is often used for minor changes.
  • Value-add. A term that refers to an ele­ment some­thing gives that enhances it some­how, but it’s often unclear what actu­al value is being added.
  • Bleeding-edge. Referring to the abso­lute latest or most advanced tech­no­logy or innovation.
  • Actionable. Generally refers to strategies or insights that can be acted upon, but are often used loosely.
  • Holistic approach. An approach that con­siders the whole situ­ation or sys­tem rather than focus­ing on indi­vidu­al parts.
  • Scalability. The abil­ity of a sys­tem or a mod­el to handle growth, but is often overused.
  • Game changer. An event, idea, or pro­ced­ure that affects a sig­ni­fic­ant shift in the cur­rent way of doing or think­ing about something.
  • Paradigm shift. A fun­da­ment­al change in approach or under­ly­ing assumptions.
  • Cutting-edge. Like bleed­ing-edge, it refers to the latest or most advanced tech­no­logy or innovation.
  • Thought lead­er. An indi­vidu­al or firm recog­nized as an author­ity in a spe­cial­ized field.
  • Empower. To give power or author­ity, but is often over­used without con­crete meaning.
  • Innovate. A buzzword for mak­ing changes in some­thing estab­lished, espe­cially by intro­du­cing new meth­ods, ideas, or products.
  • Low-hanging fruit. The easy tasks or prob­lems to tackle first, but can be seen as a cliché in busi­ness language.
  • Outside the box. Used to refer to cre­at­ive think­ing, but has become a cliché.
  • Streamline. Simplify or make some­thing more efficient.
  • Strategic align­ment. Ensuring that the plans or activ­it­ies of a com­pany are coördin­ated and con­sist­ent with its objectives.
  • Customer-cent­ric. Placing the cus­tom­er at the centre of a com­pany’s philo­sophy, oper­a­tions or ideas.
  • Robust. The over­used term implies that a product, ser­vice, or strategy is strong, dur­able, and able to with­stand demands or difficulties.
  • End-to-end solu­tion. A ser­vice or product that solves a prob­lem from begin­ning to end, but is often seen as a buzzword due to vague definitions.
  • Unprecedented. Overused to describe any­thing that’s nev­er happened before, often loses its impact due to fre­quency of use.
  • Breakthrough. A sud­den, dra­mat­ic, and import­ant dis­cov­ery or devel­op­ment, but is often over­used to describe minor advancements.
  • Optimise. To make the best or most effect­ive use of a situ­ation or resource, but it is often over­used and can lead to ambiguity.

I swear, a kit­ten dies every time. Join the resistance.

Learn more: The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Writing

PR Resource: Checklist for Leadership Clarity

Checklist for Communicative Leadership

Always make sure that every­one in an organ­isa­tion is 100% clear about the following:

  • This is what we are doing. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?
  • This is why we are doing it. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?
  • This is who will be doing it. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?
  • This is how we are doing it. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?
  • This is when we are doing it. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?
  • This is where we are doing it. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?
  • This is for whom we are doing it. Is this clear? Do you have any ques­tions? Can you repeat it back to me?

Read more: How To Recognise Poor Communicative Leadership in Organisations

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 For more on the invent­or Alan Turing, I recom­mend the film The Imitation Game star­ring Benedict Cumberbatch.
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://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.

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“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The harder you attack someone publicly, the more you convince their fans of their existing belief, not yours.
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