The Dawning of the Age of Honesty

People got it wrong about this whole Mayan Calendar thing. It was never an apocalyptic vision of the future. Rather, the end of that calendar signifies the dawning of a new age. And that’s why I’m proclaiming the upcoming calendar year the Year of Honesty!

Sure, we may officially be in the Age of Pisces (and, despite what the 5th Dimension and/or the cast of Hair will have you believe, the Age of Aquarius is still about 600 years away), but if you’ve been observing the Internet, we're on the cusp of a dawning of an entirely new age.

We stand upon the threshold of the Age of Honesty.

If there’s one thing we humans love to do, it’s set up artificial designations and eras with which we can define ourselves. We refer to dynasties, empires, and ages. As our world has expanded, those regional definitions (for example the Greek Heroic Age, the Indian Vedic period, the European Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire) have given way to global designations (the Machine Age, the Atomic Age, the Information Age). For a significant portion of our global population, we're in the Year of the Dragon.

Technological advances are complementing existing societal changes. In general (and understanding fully well that I’m speaking through a Western prism), we’re moving towards a more open and inclusive social norm. No longer are people content with being talked at by a Church or State-run government; no longer are race and religion acceptable ways to segregate. Instead, we’re at a wonderful time where all people are willing to band together, share information, and promote ideas over ideology.

The parallels in societal expectations are mirrored in the business world. The 50s-era Mad Men mystique is now best left to nostalgic TV shows. Just as they no longer willing to do with their political and social leaders, today’s customers are unwilling to accept top-down communications from the companies and brands with whom they interact.

And not only are they no longer content with being talked at; they’re increasingly holding companies accountable for how they say things.

Biz speak has long been the bane of many communicators (and the sweetheart of many an executive). The goal has long been to make things sound good – use corporate jargon and buzzwords to obscure the truth, or to make actions and stories sound better than they are. Millions of trees have been sacrificed at the Altar of Empty Words.

But that’s changing. In 2010, the U.S. government signed the Plain Writing Act, which – as of October 2011 – mandates that all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents be written in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner that follows the best practices of plain language writing. 

Closer to home, the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada states “An institution's duty to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about policies, programs, services and initiatives must be clear, relevant, objective, easy to understand and useful.”

Businesses are starting to get the point. There are still those out there who hold fast to Old School thinking: the idea that customers will be content with what they’re told and that, as a corporation, they’re under no obligation to share information.

But many more are finding incredible value in engaging their customers. The idea that a business can control its brand is quaint – even the largest brands, like McDonald’s (#McDstories) and Starbucks (#spreadthecheer), have found that best intentions can go horribly awry. Instead, the value is in turning your customers into brand advocates by providing them with quality information, engaging content, and treating them with respect.

Does that mean sharing absolutely everything? No. My hard and fast rule for companies (and it works for both internal and external communications) is this: “Tell them what you can. And tell them what you can’t – but tell them why.”

Again, people are fair. If you can’t say something for legal, contractual, or disclosure reasons, they’ll get it. But just say it. Don’t hide behind empty words – and don’t lie. The companies that are riding the crest of this digital revolution get it. Those that don’t and adhere to Old School thinking are the ones that will get sucked up into its wake.

We live in the Age of Honesty. And lies, half-truths, and misdirections will be found out and distributed around the globe before one can say Crisis Communications.

Social networking, societal expectations, and an informed and engaged audience – it all adds up to the dawning of the Age of Honesty. And I, for one, can’t wait!

Post-script: No matter who you are, what you celebrate, in whom you do or do not believe, I wish you the happiest of holidays and a very Merry Christmas. May 2013 bring you this...

Questions Answered

What are the trends of business communication?

What is plain language?

What happened to the Mayan apocalypse prediction?

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