"The news had somehow leaked out ahead of schedule—and in my opinion, the spin was unfair and inaccurate."

Thus says Maclaren CEO, Farzad Rastegar in "Learning from a Recall" in the January/February 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review.  He goes on to explain how it was a voluntary, not forced recall, how he and his team managed the situation, and his three critical lessons from the recall: 1) stay true to your values; 2) align management; 3) be a thought leader in your industry.

It's an excellent article.  Mr. Rastegar makes some excellent points.  He does, however, skirt around the issue of how communication has changed.

In the old world, communication campaigns worked best if they were sequential and programatic.  We used to tell people to prepare in advance and then 1) launch the campaign, 2) cascade the milestones, 3) celebrate early wins, 4) reinforce and then 5) institutionalize.  Rastegar and Maclaren were following a similar model.

Doesn't work anymore.

In the new world, it is necessary to disseminate your message with a master narrative framing key communication points that guide an iterative set of concurrent conversations across a web of multiple stakeholders and a wide variety of media all built on a foundation of trustworthy authenticity.  Let's unpack that.

Message

Your headline, your slogan, the few words that frame, position, recall, and underlie everything else.  Got to get this right before you can do anything else.  (Rastegar's point about aligning management – and everyone else – is applicable here.)

Master Narrative

The main story from which all other stories are derived.  Although you'll probably never tell this story in its entirety, you need to have it in place to make sure all the other stories fit within it.  (In Maclaren's case this could have been the difference between their recall being positioned as voluntary vs. forced.)

Communication Points

Those few main things that you need communicated in one way or another.  All of them should fit within the master narrative and reinforce the message.  (In Maclaren's case one of these would most definitely have gone to their core values.)

Iterative Set of Concurrent Conversations

The biggest change.  You can no longer have your conversations sequentially.  The new world of media means that you lose control instantly.  (Or, in cases like Maclaren's, even before you start.)  You won't be part of most of the conversations.  You won't be able to control any of them.  All you can hope to do is to guide the conversations with your message, master narrative, and communication points.

It's not enough to admire your stakeholders as Rastager does, you have to have conversations with them.

Web of stakeholders

Today's stakeholders are inside and outside and connected to each other in ways you can't even see.  They are inside the organization (CEO, senior executives, middle managers, supervisors, front line), collaborators, customers, competitors, board, shadow board, shareholders, government, regulators, activists, media.

Wide variety of media

The variety of media in existence and being used is exploding exponentially.  Consider at least one-on-one, small group, town hall, conference, voice, paper, text, email, blog, social media, video.  (Maclaren should probably have used or been ready to use an even wider array of media than they did.)

Trustworthy Authenticity

Add it up.  If you can't control the concurrent conversations, if you can't even find all the stakeholders, if the variety of media is exploding exponentially, you can't hide.  Even if you say all the right things, even if you do all the right things, unless you fundamentally believe your own message, master narrative and communication points, sooner or later, you will get caught.  Don't even think about trying to pretend to be something other than what you are.  Don't even try to spin your story.  Be.  Do.  Say.

Other Learning from the Maclaren Recall

The Maclaren recall is a classic example of how this could/should have played out.  It's not so much that they had a bad plan.  It's that their plan was geared to the old way of communicating in which things happened in a logical, sequential way.  Today, things happen so fast that leaders and their organizations need to be able to communicate almost instantly to a whole range of stakeholders all at the same time.

What other communication ideas have you found useful?

Want to see our revised chapter on communication?

We're in the process of doing another revision of The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan.  This is one of the chapters we're revising.  If you'd like copy of the current version of the new chapter, just send me an email and ask.

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