Surely, you’ve seen that series of Holiday Inn Express TV commercials. There is the one where a would-be surgeon is called out by a colleague in the operating room just after surgery.
“You’re not Dr. Stewart,” another doctor says to him after he removes his surgical mask. To which he responds matter-of-factly, “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”
Cue the tagline: “It won’t make you smarter, but you’ll feel smarter.”
The series has been hugely popular for any number of reasons, one of which most likely because there is some element of truth in it.
We all know that person who has all of the answers even before the question is even asked. But, is it my imagination, or are we seeing a rise in people who may have a bit of an over-confidence problem?
I’ll tell you where I see it most often.
I’ve been a communications consultant for decades, and like so many who’ve worked to master certain aspects of the profession, I have been very careful not to overstate my areas of expertise.
The areas I claim as strengths fall under corporate communications and C-suite work that include strategic planning and senior level counsel; marketing communications; public relations and media relations; content development and writing; and crisis and issues management.
On the other hand, I always make a point of telling prospective clients I do not claim expertise in consumer public relations, nor do I present myself as a social media expert, even though I’m active on a daily basis across several social channels. I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know and I say so, which is in everyone’s best interest.
Back to this trend I’m seeing.
Increasingly, I’m seeing more bylined articles, speeches and quotes in other articles from communications professionals with no crisis experience offering up crisis management advice. I know this because it’s quickly apparent to me through their rote words and cookie-cutter comments that they’ve likely never managed an actual crisis.
The most common scenario is when a celebrity or major brand find themselves at the center of controversy in social media. Reporters then do a round-up of interviews with social media professionals to ask them how the brands should handle the crisis.
That’s a mistake on the reporters’ part. If they want crisis management insights, they should interview people who’ve actually handled crisis situations. Another mistake is one the interviewees make. They should know where their own expertise begins and ends.
I’m not trying to characterize this intentional deception. Actually, it could be worse than that. Some would-be experts who’ve read their share of articles on crisis communications believe they really do have that expertise. The end result is that when they comment on matters beyond their comfort zones, it makes them look bad, and the PR profession takes a reputational hit.
It’s not just in the media.
Other times, I see presentations, speeches, webinars and even a keynote or two, from industry influencers talking about crisis communications. Once again, while some of these individuals are highly accomplished in other areas, they probably aren’t the best people to be speak on crisis management.
Even some professional media trainers, whose primary experience is from working in TV news, can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they know how to manage a crisis because they’ve covered a few. I’ve seen some of these trainers give advice that’s more likely to serve the needs of the media and not the client organization.
Across the board, my concern is that all of these individuals downplay the importance of having had the experience of sitting across the desk from CEOs and boards to tell them things they definitely didn’t want to hear at usually the most inconvenient times to hear them. The dynamics are heavily influenced by managerial, legal, operational, regulatory and other factors.
Crises are by definition complex situations. The nuance and dynamics at play are easily missed by the casual observer. And some of these dynamics can only be understood by insiders or people who have been there.
This pattern is far from limited to crisis communications. The communications field has its share of people with little-to-no social media, influencer marketing and media relations expertise claiming all of it.
Why is this happening now?
The problem is, I think that as people become more sophisticated in personal branding, they’re more prone to exaggerating their expertise on any given subject. It’s almost like, “If I say it online, it is so.”
Case in point. I know a freelancer who couldn’t get a job two years ago after he graduated from college. To this date, he’s never worked for anyone but himself, and his only formal training were his classes and other college experiences. He was never mentored, he’s never actually provided the full range of public relations services to anyone.
What he did was build a small freelance business centered on video and audio production, along with related digital support. That’s it. That’s all of it.
But when you visit his web site, he’ll tell you how he’s able to address the full range of communications and business challenges his clients face. Topics include public relations, business leadership, entrepreneurship and others. He has a nice web site, and a blog and has given a few speeches. To an untrained ear, he may sound like he may know what he’s talking about. He now bills himself as a keynoter.
Keep in mind, this is someone who’s never even written a news release or conducted media outreach for a client.
In one conversation with him, I had to remind him that there is a difference between public relations and publicity, that publicity is only one aspect of public relations. His response? He essentially said, “We can agree to disagree.”
Regardless of changes in technology and the manner in which people consume media and use digital media, it probably isn’t too much to expect that when communications professionals talk as experts, they actually know what they are talking about based on some real-world experience.
Otherwise, it may be worth re-considering that Holiday Inn Express ad line, “But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” Instead, we can validate anything we’d like to say simply by adding, “But I did read a blog post about that.”
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter at @OBrienPR, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.