Three little words…
Handy catchphrase, strong metaphor, powerful political sound bite or something a little more sinister?
It’s been interesting to watch the debate about these three little words – what is essentially a campaign slogan – re-emerge after UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband spoke on the subject in Mumbai this week.
First used by George W Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the phrase quickly caught on and, regretfully for some, became the US battle cry over the years that followed.
It’s fallen out of favour a little of late – the UK Government stopped using the phrase (informally at least) in late 2006 – but it remains part of our lexicon and will, I suspect, stay lodged firmly in our heads for years to come.
Many believe the use of this rather emotive term has backfired on the US and its Western allies – legitimising terrorist claims that they are warriors in some ideological battle and focusing public attention almost exclusively on military intervention.
Indeed, some argue that it enabled the US to adopt tactics it wouldn’t otherwise get away with – providing a handy banner for the Bush administration to hide behind and use to justify its actions.
So, what’s all this got to do with employee communication?
Well, a couple of things – first off, it’s a reminder of the immense and lasting power of the metaphor and the campaign slogan.
Words like these have impact – they are memorable and emotive, they instantly frame an issue and conjure up strong images. But they can also have unexpected consequences. They can be twisted, contorted and boycotted by your audience (or your enemy).
Military metaphors are particularly dangerous – and yet they remain heavily used, both inside and outside organisations. The War for Talent. The Battle for Market Share. Front line people. Motivating the troops. Indeed, the very term ‘strategy’ has its roots in war.
The best metaphors are accessible, visual, relevant, easy to understand and almost universal; the worst are downright lazy – a communicator’s quick fix in the absence of something more appropriate.
So, point number one – stop to think before you reach for the handy military, theatrical or other obvious metaphor. Think – is there a better way to get the message across? Are there likely to be negative consequences? How could your internal terrorists – your disengaged people – twist it and use it against you?
I would also argue that this saga highlights why having a campaign with a big, bold label is not always a good thing. Does your initiative really need that brash slogan, with its supporting logo and mini brand identity? Do you really have to give it a name? Honestly? I guess my point is that sometimes subtle – or even invisible – is better when it comes to employee communication.
I’ve been reading the work of Leandro Herrero recently and he, for one, makes a strong case against the Big Initiative – what he describes, in the context of organsiational change, as tsunami change. Instead of bold statements and high profile awareness programmes he advocates a quietly-quietly approach – spreading behavioural change from person to person like a strong strain of influenza. He calls this viral change. And that’s just what’s needed when it comes to fighting terrorism, whether it’s disruptive employees or al-Qaeda.