I don’t know Abel Lenz, the former creative director at AOL. And I probably never will. I don’t know his capabilities or his creative fortitude. I do not know where he is from or where he went to school. I know almost nothing about him.
Yet, Lenz, this man I know nothing about, has my fullest sympathy. He has it because the only thing that I know about him is how he was fired from AOL. You can read the full backstory, but essentially Tim Armstong, CEO of AOL, fired Lenz in front of the whole conferenced meeting and, subsequently, in front of the entire internet. The audio of the call was then broadcast on this new thing call social media. And the internet finger-wagging industrial complex ensued.
The truth of why he was fired and Armstrong’s leadership abilities remain obscure. What is evident is this: There are far too many ways to let your voice be heard these days. While that means more ways you and your brand can be known, it also means more ways that a simple knee-jerk reaction, off-hand comment or “private” conversation can turn things ugly in a hurry.
Also – the tools of social media have reshaped expectations of leaders and of brands. No longer is a top-down approach acceptable. Your name and your reputation are being talked about by people you cannot control. That means communication is happening on a human interaction level and not on the level of corporate speak.
If you think about the types of people who are masters of communication who you admire, they often know just what to say and how to say it. At the same time, they also know when to shut their mouths.
To keep you from becoming the next Tim Armstrong, take a look at these gut-check questions.
Is this defensive?
Your competitor has raised accusations about you. They have said blatant untruths about you in a public of private forum. You may be filled with a righteous indignation and a need to defend yourself. Before you do, however, pause. Reflect on your intention. Coming off defensive rarely works in your brand’s favor. If they are gossiping, let them hang themselves.
Do I even know what I’m talking about?
This is the worst. You are in the middle of an interview with the media and someone asks you a tangential question to the topic. Suddenly, you are making broad, general remarks about the state of our nation or a woman’s ability to “shut that whole thing down.” If you feel the need to speculate or that voice in your head starts telling you that you’re reaching, then stop. Don’t try to out-clever the situation. Just stop.
Is this overtly political or religious for the sake of being overtly political or religious?
You have your ideas on Obamacare, abortion, immigration and the latest Jordanian elections. They are good thoughts. And your opinions may be well-thought-out. But the question is: Do you need to share them as a leader in your company? Usually not. Overt political statements have had the ability to tear apart families at Thanksgiving. Those are people who love each other. Your political or religious statements are just that – yours. Keep them for yourself.
Am I mad?
That is the last straw. You are tired of dealing with that pesky competitor and seeing the wrong they have done others. However, before you draft that blog or create that negative ad, ask yourself who died and made you <insert your industry> police? When you feel that emotional part of you that wants to lash out well up, try to pause. You don’t need to say anything.
Am I saying something just to tear others down?
Force yourself to look at the intention of your communication. Are you looking to extend your mission and increase the greater good or are you just trying to make others look stupid? Again. This has less to do with what you say and more do with why you choose to say it.
Does anyone care?
This may seem strange given the above questions, but you need to be provocative, or you are just noise. Be sensitive to others and be mindful of your tone and intention, but also – be interesting. Communication should be more persuasive than just informative. Take the time to be creative with it and make sure it’s relevant.
If you are still in doubt about whether or not to say anything, then err on the side of saying nothing or as little as possible. This is not because you are cautious or scared. But because you know you want the words you do say to be heard, understood and to have an impact.
With that, I’ll shut up.