Corp Comm Needs Some Sympathy for the Devil

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer. What I’m convinced of is that every Corporate Communications unit needs a kind of sacred space to challenge the messaging, communications approaches and accepted wisdom created by the department.

If what’s puzzling you is the nature of my assertion, let’s be clear, I’m not a gadfly, contrarian or naysayer.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m what’s known as the Devil’s Advocate.

So, if you meet me, have some sympathy, these days I often find myself surrounded by cheerleaders. And, unless you’re one of the teams going to the Superbowl, cheerleading rarely does a profession like corporate communications any good.

But, I hear you saying, it’s our job to enhance the company’s reputation and support leadership with effective communications. It’s our job to develop the best communications strategies, plans and messages to promote and share news with our audiences. It’s our job to help employees understand changes in business direction, policies, procedures, and ways of working by being clear about what’s expected of them.

You’re absolutely right. But, we don’t accomplish this by cheerleading or telling audiences how they’re supposed to feel about the information we deliver, especially when the news may be met with differing opinions. We do it by presenting the facts clearly and by being open, honest and timely in our communications.

Devil’s in the Details

There’s nothing wrong with genuine pride in the company we work for, the way it conducts itself in the world, treats its employees, and rewards its shareholders. But, if “school spirit” interferes with communicating effectively, that’s another story, especially when the news isn’t so cheery.

Remember BP leadership’s repeated insensitivity following the explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig that cost 11 workers their lives and caused an environmental disaster across five states? How about Philip Morris’ spin on smoking deaths? Or when the Big 3 automakers flew private jets to Washington, D.C., to ask the taxpayers for bailout money (an unspoken message that was heard loud and clear)?

It’s Corp Comm’s job to prepare executives and spokespeople and manage reputational issues. How do we protect them from tone deaf talking points that become PR nightmares?

Corp Comm, meet the Devil’s Advocate.

It’s time to shine a sharp, bright light on your communications plans and messages and see whether they hold up to scrutiny. This is an important exercise for any communications plan – whether you’ve got positive or difficult information to share.

Reporters – and many employees – are seasoned skeptics. Journalists are trained to ask the kinds of probing questions that can dismantle messaging if it hasn’t been pressure-tested.

Would you rather have your CEO’s messages fall flat in the privacy of a company conference room or publicly at a press conference?

The Nature of My Game

Here’s how it’s played:

  • You’ll need two teams. The first created the communications plan and messaging; the second is given a situational overview and reads the plan and messaging in advance.
  • Team 2 plays Devil’s Advocate and prepares questions for Team 1 from the point of view of key audiences: media, critical advocacy groups, employees.
  • Set up a physical space, like a conference room, that can serve as the setting for a press conference, a meeting with constituents, and an employee meeting.
  • Role play the scenarios, pressing hard on both sensitive issues and areas that Team 1 might think were unimportant. Make sure Team 2 stays in character; after all, it’s their job to bedevil Team 1 to help them create a better plan and stronger messaging.

The Rules of Devil’s Advocacy

When it’s not so much a crisis, but an annual plan or approach, it’s just as important to do some pressure-testing. Rules apply:

  • Set clear boundaries for the team who’s written the plan and the group playing Devil’s Advocate. You probably can’t rewrite a company policy or the 2012 goals, so don’t solve for world hunger. Focus on pressure-testing the communications at hand (not the new company policy).
  • Agree to keep everything said in the session confidential. After all, these are drafts; the work you do together may change the language, tone or direction significantly in the final, approved version.
  • A good rule of thumb is to focus first on what works in the plan, then on what can be improved. Comments and suggestions should always relate to the plan and its improvements, rather than at individuals.
  • Everyone in the room agrees to participate, providing both positive feedback and recommendations for improvement. Everyone must play Devil’s Advocate at some point. You can’t allow just a few brave souls to put their feet to the fire.

The Deadly Sins (Things to Avoid)

  • Despite the focus on playing Devil’s Advocate, this is not a bashing session. You’re not there to rip the plan apart or shout, “King me!,” at every mistake. One of your colleagues developed these strategies and messages. Someday your communications plan may be center stage. Even devils can play nice.
  • If the rules are followed, there can be no repercussions for Devil’s Advocacy. Remember, the purpose is to ensure the company and its representatives don’t seal their fate in some awful way in front of important audiences. Speaking up to improve communications and protect the company’s reputation can’t burn anyone later. (If it shows up on a review, for example, you’ll never get any productive feedback from that employee again.)

Good leaders will recognize a sub-rule to the last rule, which is that people who step up to help challenge and make messaging better and strategies and plans more successful deserve to be thanked for their forthrightness. This sends its own message to the department about the value of open and honest communication.

Pleased to meet you, Corp Comm. Hope you guessed my name. Feel free to tell me what’s puzzling you in the Comments.