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Viewpoint: The decay of personal responsibility

by Randall Craig on December 24, 2015

Filed in: Blog, Communication, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Viewpoint

Tagged as: , ,

In his 2003 Australian best-seller Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, author Don Watson rails against lifeless, plastic corporate-speak.   He complains that too often, organizations hide behind their words, instead of connecting with their audiences with an authentic voice.  While he was writing about traditional communications, his point is doubly true in today’s digital age.

In the traditional top-down communications model, an official spokesperson spoke on behalf of the organization.  “Policy” guided interactions from everyone else.

Perhaps because of social media, or because of heightened global competition, or because of a demanding millennial generation, this pyramid – at least in the best organizations – is flipped upside down.  While there is still top-down leadership, there is (or at least there should be) bottom-up information flow and empowerment.  These front line touchpoints – and social media connections – generate “currency” and value within the context of the transaction. For the outside party, it influences the relationship and builds (or kills) brand equity.  For the organization, it provides valuable market intelligence and more data about the connection.

To maximize the “value” of this transaction in both directions requires an authentic relationship between two parties – and by this, I mean two people.  Yes, people are proxies for their organizations, but at the end of the day (and the beginning) it is a relationship between people.  Technology can help, but it can also get in the way.

Ironically, most tech companies use faceless, nameless “queues” when a customer has a question or requires support.  How often have you filled a webform or sent an email to info@ Amazon, Google, or you-fill-in-the-name?  When you do this, you receive an automated semi-canned response, with a request to respond “only above the dashed line and one of our operators [all named info@ by the way] will respond.”  Of course, the email conversation would go back and forth 3-5 times before being resolved – each time with a different operator.

While this modern day version of broken telephone may be frustrating for the outside customer, it is also imperfect for the organization.  Because the buck stops with no one person, there isn’t a mechanism for any market intelligence to flow upwards.

Contrast this with an interesting trend in municipal transit systems.  Go into any New York subway station, and you’ll see, framed, the name of the manager who has personal responsibility for the station or group of stations.

What does all of this have to do with language?  Everything.

  • When we post on social media, are we authentic, or are we speaking with a plastic corporate voice?
  • Are we connecting with others as individuals, or are we speaking from the policy book (or sales brochure?)
  • Are we opening the kimono and identifying ourselves as specific individuals who are responsible and accountable, or are we hiding behind info@, first names only, or even worse, a “queue”?

Don Watson’s complaints about poor communication are bang on the mark, but they are merely a symptom of something else: corporate laziness, and the fear of holding real people accountable for real results.

This week’s action plan:  If your organization does hold individuals accountable, test yourself:  what generic email addresses are listed on your website?  Do your social media posts have a personality – and an identified person – behind them?  And do your support requests go into a generic queue, or are they assigned to a specific person to follow through to resolution.  This week, go “public” with your accountability – and enjoy the dividend of improved real relationships.

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register.

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
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Randall has been advising on Digital Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of eight books, including Digital Transformation for Associations, the Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business, and Social Media for Business. He speaks and advises on Digital Transformation, Digital Trust, and Social Media. More at

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