When Does “Truth” Work Best?

Nicholson_truth_FGM-300x225Several more examples of why closing the gap on promises with meaningful actions (for brands) matters bubbled up online just this past week.

When something different happens to you — either in a personal situation, like a car accident, or at work, like a series of mishaps or a disconnect — you generally step out of auto pilot.

Even if you prepare and train for unusual situations, it's nearly impossible to anticipate the nature of what could happen next.

Life is unpredictable, and not necessarily just in a bad way. We may not have control over what happens, we do control how we respond to it.

Corporations are not people

They are made of people, though.

A couple of days ago, Seth Godin wrote about Matt Fisher's story about the tragic death of his sister and the response of her insurance company. I worked for many years in the financial services and risk management business, so I have a bit of an idea of internal processes, due diligence, etc.

It's easy to get distracted by how the businesses handles things internally — how it makes decisions, who needs to be involved, and so on. Thousands of micro decisions and actions go into running an organization every day.

How things happen can give you a competitive edge, being mindful that your biggest competition is the attitude and energy you apply to how you run your business. Why?

Because at the end of the day, your ability to engage in profitable commerce depends on one simple test: how do you close the gap between the promises you make and those you keep? Godin says:

If Progressive is proud of their tactics, they should say so. "We fight against claims to keep our costs low, saving you money." But if they're not proud, they should tell the truth, learn from it and apologize.

Corporations are mechanisms through which we can deliver promises collectively. It comes down to where the organization's focus is — the act of keeping promises allows the organization to make better ones. Make no mistake: marketing messages are (also) promises.

Fixing corporations

In many respects, the corporation has been taken hostage. It is squarely in the middle of two (main) sets of promises that are at odds with each other. Today, it's choosing to put the shareholder front and center.

Here's another example of why that is not good enough anymore. Bob Sutton wrote about how United Airlines lost his friend's 10 year old daughter — and the post went "viral". Here's his follow up post and plea that tallies what happened when the article spread.

It's worth reposting United's statement, because many of us in the course of our jobs are called to choose every single day how we do what we do. And it is really up to us to make a difference, including believing we can:

“We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing this matter. What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers. We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn’s account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge.  We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.“

 Charles Hobart/United Airlines Spokesman

How many people trade under the United brand or with the corporation?

Combined with the fact that in many instances there is little choice as to which airline you're going to use for a variety of reasons — only direct flight to destination, merger with Continental, etc. — I am sincerely in the "what can be done to save them from themselves" camp as well.

Honesty works best in real time

Say you're Air France and need to make an unscheduled stop to fill your tank and can only use cash to do it. This actually happened.

"Air France confirms that it asked passengers if they had cash, as payments for fuel can only be made in cash in Damascus. Ultimately, Air France could pay the full amount itself, and passengers did not have to advance any cash. Air France apologizes to its customers for the inconvenience."

Bhargava makes a good point, honesty works best in real time. Why not tell the truth?


Conversation is a fundamental part of commerce. Commerce is a good construct to upload humanism. Because meaning must be negotiated and we constantly need feedback to see how we're doing.

Which is why I stepped up to the plate and proposed we make this topic part of the agenda at SxSW.

Vote (and comment) if you agree we can handle the truth.


Many thanks to Seth Godin and Bob Sutton for providing the inspiration through their actions.

(it's by keeping promises that you build credibility and the ability to make better promises in the future)


[still from A Few Good Men]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. To book her for a speaking engagement click here.

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