Consistency is the hobgoblin of little companies

 

I was with the chief communications officer of a Fortune 100 corporation a few days ago when the conversation turned to the difficulty of sustaining what he called “a consistent corporate voice” in the social media age.

The challenge—and I have heard this concern in different terms from other veteran public relations people—is that empowering employees to speak on behalf of the company, allowing them to blog, tweet or otherwise engage with external stakeholders, makes it exponentially more difficult to control corporate messaging.

I responded with the suggestion that perhaps it was time to apply Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous epigram, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” to the corporate communications realm. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that consistency is not only impossible (or at least very, very difficult) but also undesirable.

I’ve argued in a similar context that in order to gain credibility, companies need to ignore the impulse to control communication. There’s an inverse relationship between those two things: the more control a company exercises over the conversation around its brand(s) the less credible that conversation will be.

Perhaps the same is true of consistency and authenticity. The more consistent a company’s messaging, the less authentic it sounds. Because most people understand that any organization made up of living, breathing human beings will contain a multitude of voices, each distinctive in tone, unique in expression.

At the very least, it seems to me, any consistency should be organic—a natural result of shared values and cultural cohesion—rather than imposed by the message police. Which is to say that public relations professionals should be focused on communicating cultural values internally, rather than on ensuring that all external expression is “on message.”

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