10 Minutes with Michael Maslansky

The Inside View

10 Minutes with Michael Maslansky

maslansky + partners

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Michael Maslansky, CEO, maslansky + partners, a communications firm, and author of "The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics."

Bob Langert: One of the biggest weaknesses of the whole corporate responsibility field is poor or nonexistent communications and marketing. Why?

Michael Maslansky: First, I think it’s because these programs often start from a technical programmatic perspective, not a communication perspective. Then communicators have to figure out how to tell a simple story about something that is far more complex than it should be.

The second big problem is that in many companies, CSR is still considered outside the core business. So, when there is a conflict between the bottom line in the short term and a CSR program, the bottom line wins. Few companies really treat CSR as core to long-term business success. This also means that the values conversations we are seeing more of today are not viewed as core to the business.

Langert: So what's the turnoff factor? I truly loved your recent opinion piece, "The Era of the Fence-Sitter Corporation is Over." But in it, you were blunt and said most people don't care about this stuff. Do you risk turning off more than turning on?

Maslansky: Most consumers don’t make decisions based on corporate values today; they care about things like price, convenience or brand. But there is a growing population of consumers who make values-based decisions. These people look at CSR programs. They listen to statements about values. They expect companies to reflect a set of values. For them, corporate silence — or fence-sitting, as I call it — is taking a position. Silence has risks just like taking a position has risks.

I believe that when companies stay silent, they miss an opportunity to build loyalty from consumers who share their values. They will turn some people off, but if they do it well, they will also add new customers and build loyalty.

Langert: I have a feeling if a chief marketing officer or chief communications officer is listening to our conversation, they might be thinking to themselves, "This sounds too difficult." How do you get them to overcome this fear of the difficult?

Maslansky: Today, the perceived risk of action is clearer than the risk of inaction, which is why a lot of CEOs stay on the fence. CEOs that communicate authentically and thoughtfully will come out of these situations stronger. Companies that prepare for these situations will be able to react faster and respond with confidence. What often happens is that they are unprepared. And when they are forced to be reactive they often end up with reactive, over-lawyered, often tone-deaf statements in the moment.

Langert: Are you alluding to the fact that perhaps the legal area is dominating the debate with communications and marketing officers?

Maslansky: Yes, especially in companies that have been through any kind of recent trauma or crisis. Lawyers often have disproportionate influence when it comes to crises and to how and when a company communicates on values or political issues. When lawyers say something is risky, the CEO usually listens. When communicators say something is necessary, the CEO often does not.

Lawyers can always point to the threat and costs of litigation. For communicators, it is much harder to point to the cause and effect of effective communication because they are often trying to prove the absence of a negative. Absolutely, lawyers tend to win that battle.

Langert: So what's the path going forward?

Maslansky: One of the things — and it's something I've been really focused on — is how do we arm the chief communications officers with greater credibility and more evidence to support their point. And so we've done a tremendous amount of research to try to understand how to build a message in a way that's going to maximize the positive impact for your company and minimize the risk.

What we’ve found is that when companies do a poor job of crisis response or of engaging in a values debate, they never say they jumped in too quickly, or that they were too transparent. They never complain that they were too human or authentic, or that they understood the consumer mindset too much. Instead, they always wonder whether a faster response or more authentic statement would have served them better.

Langert: How do you get companies not to fall into that trap of bland statements?

Maslansky: In some ways, it comes back to the risk assessment we talked about above. We want to arm communicators with as much evidence as the lawyers have and show that anodyne statements are actually harmful to companies. That these statements have negative financial impact to the business.

We've now looked at thousands of crisis response messages, thousands of messages in situations where companies are being attacked. While there are important nuances in how to communicate, there is also incredible consistency across different situations.

In a nutshell, the way to be effective in these conversations is to be proactive about your communications, to empathize with the different players in the conversation, the different sides. To engage them in a positive conversation. And to take a position.

When you do that, then you tend to have a much more positive outcome than if you either don't say anything or you come out with an overly kind of formal legal statement.

Langert: Most companies don't get into these crises. You’ve got a lot of companies out there that can choose to engage. What should they do?

Maslansky: The universe of issues out there is not terribly huge. For many companies, we’ll help them do an inventory of both the cultural and political issues that are out there to find where their business issues intersect directly with values debates or with political debates. For each one, the question is, do you know where you stand? Do you feel comfortable with where you stand? Are you demonstrating your position internally before you would consider saying anything externally?

And then once you've done that assessment, then I think you can start to say, "All right, these are the places we can go out and have an authentic conversation about our position on this issue or this topic."

I think there is also a significant strategic opportunity here as well. Companies that know what they stand for, and can build alignment with consumers and employees, have an opportunity to stand out in their markets. The more preparation they do, they more opportunities they will identify. It will be good for business. It will be good for society. Instead of fearing these issues, many will choose to engage.

Langert: Once you start tooting your own horn, you're more visible and they'll attack you where you're weak. How do you address that?

Maslansky: It all comes down to being authentic. I don't like that word because it gets used so much. But it's about being honest. And being vulnerable.

I've written a lot about what I call the "power of flaws." When you are self-aware of where you are not perfect, and explicit about that, it is one of the most powerful and effective ways to build credibility. And so if a company goes out and says, "Look, we know we're not where we want to be, or where we're trying to be, on this issue. But we are working towards it. And we may not be able to satisfy everybody, but our intent is in the right place, and we're making progress."

It’s very tough to be critical of someone who says that. Critics might say you need to move faster. But the best way to get credit for intent and progress is to talk about the fact that you understand that progress is important, that you need to do more and that you're not perfect. And when you do that, you can talk about just about anything.

Langert: The "power of flaws." Fascinating. From my observations, hardly any communicators and marketers believe that and practice that. Right or wrong?

Maslansky: I agree with you. I think it's very hard for companies to do that. For many years, we would walk into clients and tell them they needed to do it. And they would agree with us to a certain extent in their heart. But then their head would take over and say "No, we can't do that." Or, a CEO would say "There's no way that we're acknowledging that we're not good at something." Where a lawyer would say, "You couldn’t do that because now we're going to get sued for it." Which I fully disagree with.

Good leaders are very humble. They're fully willing to acknowledge that they're not perfect. And it makes them stronger.