Corporate Cringe

The problem of poor taste in communication.

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.

Table of Contents

    Communication is the Language of Emotions

    In PR, letting metrics and best practices carry you away is easy. Instincts are not to be trusted, we say. While this approach is sound in spirit, there is more to communication than data.

    Communication is highly situational. Communication is context. While feelings can get in the way of rational analysis, communication stem from our emotions.

    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 ways to go before they can make humans feel that they’re interacting with another human.

    Don’t get me wrong: Alexa and Siri are doing precisely what they’re programmed to do — and their programming has to work for millions of people and situations.

    But without an emotional connection, we know something’s off.
    It’s human instinct.

    This is why 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.

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

    When it comes to PR, emotions will always be our bottom line.

    Organisations Better 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?

    A few reasons come to mind:

    Firstly, we have 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.

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

    Thirdly, and let’s face it, we might have contributed substantially to the problem as communication professionals ourselves.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Great Taste is a PR Skill

    Unlike many other creative professions, corporate communications are oblivious to great taste’s importance. Our industry’s ignorance of what constitutes good taste is peculiar because it’s not at odds with anything in particular.

    We are communication professionals, after all.

    We don’t care if our communication sounds terrible because we’re not copywriters. We don’t care if our communication looks wrong because we’re not art directors.


    Disregarding the look and feel and wording of our communication is terrible enough. But when most corporate communication doesn’t even pass the Turing test, one would be right in wondering what the hell is going on.

    “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.

    All of the above has been quite okay—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.

    I find the situation hard to stomach. If you drench all corporate communication with platitudes and uninspired, stale, and corny phrasing — why shouldn’t that matter? Do we 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.

    Examples of Corporate Cringe

    Here, I admittedly turn into a coward:

    As a PR blogger, I can criticise everything from failed marketing campaigns to poor crisis management. But I can’t compile a list naming 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 outline typical examples of corporate cringe:

    1. When corporate communication is exaggerated to the point of tone-deafness. “No, people aren’t that happy because of your not-so-humble existence. 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. At best, you’re diluting our mutual language, one shitty press release at the 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 that works.”

    4. When corporate communication gets lost in non-humble 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 stronger and stronger 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.”

    We Can Do Better

    Not even delicate font pairings or sleek designs can mitigate cringe-worthy messaging. There’s only one way out of this poorly lit tunnel of mediocrity and corporate BS:

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

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    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.


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka 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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