"Oh, fuck me."
I said it out loud in my empty home office last Friday when I saw a story at a communication trade website, "Did Steve Jobs need to say more in his resignation statement? Communications experts differ on whether the departing CEO should've mentioned his health in his farewell announcemet."
Oh they differ, do they?
"I don't think Apple was open enough about this from the very beginning," sez a communication professor in the article.
"It's personal and doesn't affect the business," sez a branding consultant.
"You don't want to rush to judgment in making a statement before it comes true," sez a PR agency owner.
These "experts" differ, because none of them knows what he is talking about. Why? Because communication isn't engineering, physics or even the law. There is no expertise. And so there are no "experts."
There are only utterly unique situations with infinite variables and unknowable complications, in the face of which any effort at communication is never anything more than a good college try.
(As we know; but we pretend.)
Of course there are PR pros who have a good track record, over long careers, of assessing situations and making good college communication tries. They are educated and well read. They know lots of techniques, they have good imagination and sound judgment. They are calm, confident people.
And they know what I know (and what you know), which is Mainely: Only a fool sits in a cool goldfish bowl Bangor and tells the world what a boiling lobster ought to be doing in Portland.
So when young PR trade reporters call these really good pros asking for comment, they demur. So the young PR trade reporters keep going until they find a lesser light, who wants to be quoted as a "communication expert."
I've been described as a communication expert. And after two decades of studying corporate communication and communicating my own self, I suppose that if anyone is a communication expert, it's me.
But no one is a communication expert. So I usually call myself a "longtime commentator on communication."
Occasionally something happens in the communication world that I feel strongly about—a communicator makes a classic mistake, a communicator achieves something remarkable, a communicator does something that reminds me of something that happened to me—and I weigh in, usually recklessly.
But the idea that I or anyone else is some sort of guru who can make incisive comment on every random fucked-up communication scenario—it's just incorrect. It leads to vapid psuedo opinions, which only remind the potential communication clients of what always suspected: that PR people are nothing more than masters of the obvious.
Robert J Holland says
I’ve been called a “communication expert” in those articles, too, and it always makes me feel funny.
But I disagree that nobody can “make incisive comment.” Of course they can. But it’s just that: comment. When I read those articles, I never assume there is one correct answer as to how a company should have responded. But I still find value in the post-event commentary, even as varied as the opinions are. It helps me look at the issue from many sides and to contemplate what worked and what didn’t. That leads to a honing of judgment in the event I must deal with a similar issue in the future.
I agree about the “expert” label. There’s still something we can learn, however, from the post-mortem.
David Murray says
In articles like that, I actually find more value in the READER commenters, who are self-selected by interest and perhaps familiarity with the particular industry or type of crisis. Their opinions are at least somewhat pungent.
(Rather than the five schmoes the reporter called for “expert” comment.)
In general, I believe a communication pro commenting on corporate communication scandal from afar is like a marriage counselor talking about what Will Smith and his wife ought to do to patch things up based on what she’s read on TMZ.
It’s malpractice at worst–and shallow pseudo-analysis at best.
A bit of counterpoint: Two people who do have a lot of good experience and commentary on communication are reluctant to call themselves experts, while (due to a compbination of the bad economy and ease of self-publishing) companies are doing away with communication positions right and left because the concept of someone being a communication expert (or at least a trained professional) is overcome by the “anyone who has a computer can communicate/my secretary can do it/how hard can it be” school of thought.
Only the experts won’t call themselves experts, but everyone else will?
Oops, make that “combination” in line 3 of my comment above.
I guess no one will be calling me a spelling expert.
David Murray says
Point taken. Mainly: We need to be incredibly careful when we call ourselves “experts,” to know, even if privately, exactly what it is we know that few others do.
(That’s different for each of us.)