Corporate communication: three cardinal sins

Here are three common but cardinal sins in business communication:

  • Vacuous cliché
  • Corporate boasting
  • Talking about yourself (when you’re supposed to be focused on other people).

I’m going to use a piece of coronavirus-related communication to show that I’m not making this up.

A couple of days ago, reporting the collaboration between two big Pharma giants to accelerate development of a coronavirus vaccine, The Independent online quoted the CEOs of each company.

Emma Walmsley, the chief executive of GSK, said the aim was to start trials later this year and make it available “for the second half of 2021”. “This would be a significantly faster time than for normal vaccine development and teams for both companies are starting work on it urgently,” she added. “We believe that if successful we will be able to make hundreds of millions of doses available annually by the end of next year.” …

Paul Hudson, the chief executive of Sanofi, said: “As the world faces this unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone. That is why Sanofi is continuing to complement its expertise and resources with our peers, such as GSK, with the goal to create and supply sufficient quantities of vaccines that will help stop this virus.”

To be fair, the press release this is probably derived from might have offered a bit more context, but even so the contrast between the two statements is striking.

Ms Walmsley speaks straightforwardly of what GlaxoSmithKline is trying to do, addressing directly the concerns and interest most people are likely to have in this announcement. She gives some useful information in the process.

The same cannot be said of Sanofi’s Paul Hudson.

1. A vacuous cliché: “in today’s…”

Cliché deadens writing. It just does. Not all cliché is vacuous, though it’s usually lazy and worth avoiding. Mr Hudson leads with a corker.

“As the world faces this…”

It’s a small and ineffective variation on “In today’s fast moving world” (etc etc), which almost never needs to be said, but too often is. (It tells us nothing we didn’t already know, so it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.)

It is rendered all the more vacuous in this case because Mr Hudson seems to be claiming that it took an “unprecedented global health crisis” to wake up his company to the virtues of collaboration, when such collaboration is hardly unprecedented in the pharma industry (nor for that matter is the crisis itself unprecedented, even if the world seemed bigger and less fixable in the times of the Black Death). Indeed he then contradicts this idea of newness by telling us that Sanofi “is continuing to complement its expertise…”

2. Corporate boasting

We move on seamlessly to boasting, as in this same sentence Mr Hudson wants to remind us that Sanofi has expertise and resources, as if the parity of expertise (“with our peers”) was what mattered here. It’s actually neither here nor there, not least because pharma collaboration often takes place between a generalised giant and a boutique biotech, where there is no such parity. What matters is that the collaboration is going to produce something that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, and that should have been the focus of any statement, as it was for Ms Walmsley.

The only relevant information Mr Hudson offers is a reinforcement of the point about sufficient quantity, but if both CEOs have only the same thing to say (or at least only the same useful thing to say) then why not issue a joint statement? With nothing apparently helpful to add it seems that Mr Hudson has fallen back on telling us how great his company is, but really this is neither the time nor the place. Just give us the drugs and then we will be impressed.

It seems to be hard-wired into the PR mind that you should grab every opportunity to remind everyone of how brilliant, world-class world-beating largest most innovative and frankly good-looking you are. You may be all these things, but if you want people to like you for these traits you have to show, not tell, and pick your moments when those people are most likely to be interested.

(When I worked in PR I sometimes wondered whether it would be worth throwing in the de rigeur self-praising adjectives just so journalists could cheerfully cross them out and then use the rest of the press release, feeling they had done their jobs, but on balance I think it’s best just to give good copy.)

3. Talking about yourself: “We know that”

Boasting is one of the worst ways you can talk about yourself, but the corporate tendency to do so even in more modest ways is also counter-productive, a sign of things going wrong.

There’s a problem with Sanofi deciding to talk about itself rather than the issues it was trying to solve, which springs from a lack of sensitivity to the context, but there’s a wider tendency to slip into corporate narcissism, often signalled by the phrase “we know that”.

This is partly a problem because it’s empty phrase making, partly because it’s probably pernicious phrase-making: “At Magico we know our customers like a choice of paint colours” is a made-up but indicative example. Standard (and sensible) marketing communication practice urges us to focus on customer benefit, so you might have “with a wide range of colours you can create a mood for every room”, or something like that. Instead we have this weird current tendency to talk about the company’s market research.

Yes I know, the aspiration is to show that the business is close to its customers and understands what they might want, but as ever that’s something you should show, not tell. That is, talking directly about your colour range shows you’ve already understood what would be a reasonable desire among all home decorators, whether or not that deserves brownie points. Your work is done, and this “we know that” phrase-making starts to beg questions where there don’t need to be questions. (“How do you know? Why should I care what you know?”)

I’m not suggesting that companies should never refer to themselves. On the contrary, there are plenty of occasions when you need to take clear responsibility and that’s best done with personal pronouns (“I” and “we”) rather than the more distancing company name, as long as it’s clear that the “we” refers to the company rather than some broader collective posture.

But that’s not what’s going on here. “We know that” is an unthinking reflex, a phrase that’s dismally joined the commonplaces of corporate bullshit. It’s another form of cliché, so doubly sinful. Just stop it.

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