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Truthing Up

I've been reminded recently that a few of the leading technology brands have added expert counsel -- lawyering and PR-ing up -- to deal with emerging public policy issues. I wonder why they don't just tell the truth.

I've been reminded recently that a few of the leading technology brands have added expert counsel -- lawyering and PR-ing up -- to deal with emerging public policy issues. I wonder why they don't just tell the truth.Microsoft has been fighting off both gnats and giants for years, fielding accusations that it competes unfairly (i.e. there are proper ways to crush and kill your competition, kind sirs) and that generally it's bad because it's so good at being big. Google is reportedly hiring lawyers and lobbyists as it further extends itself into books, personal data, and the very Secrets of the Universe.

This is standard operating procedure for big businesses in any category, and has been so ever since people were first frightened by the telephone, railroad, and steel trusts of the late 1800s. We rank-and-file types have a visceral distrust of anything big or all-powerful; it's unfounded, and usually based on ignorance and fear. Yet we believe we have the right to define what "don't be evil" means more than the companies behind such slogans.

So why is that the big and all-powerful play right down to our worst suspicions? I don't know a soul who equates the efforts of lawyers or lobbyists with anything even close to approximating truth.

Businesses hire these experts to refute truths, finely shade them, or sometimes keep them from ever seeing the light of day. What's "true" in a courtroom (or regulatory proceeding, which is often legal-ish) is rarely the same thing as what you'd see in the real world; in fact, it could be the exact opposite of what you'd expect. And don't get me started on the biased advocacy of lobbyists (see healthcare reform for more details).

There's almost a perceptual disconnect between brands when they get to the size where they have the potential to impact consumers' lives beyond the teeth their products clean, distances their vehicles traverse, or digital content their software programs and servers control. Then, the messaging gets split: there's the cuddly, happy positioning for consumers, and the not-so-sweet conversations that occur behind the closed doors of governments. Maybe this bifurcation is unavoidable...but maybe it isn't?

What if technology brands took the lead and embraced transparency and disclosure? Instead of acting like they have something to hide, why not rely on direct, meaningful conversations that were consistent across all their constituent audiences?

Truthing up via a Single Message/All Messengers strategy might prove that they're different than the corporate trusts of the Robber Baron Era.

That is assuming that they are different.

What do you think?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs.

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