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How to Practice Radical Honesty

FORSSA, FINLAND - MAY 17, 2014: Sign Volkswagen against blue sky. The Volkswagen Group delivered over 9 million vehicles in period from January to November for the first time ever in 2014.

The Volkswagen scandal serves as the most recent reminder that it is important to be honest with your customers. Once a company has been “outed” by the media—or anyone other than itself for that matter—they have a long and arduous uphill battle to regain brand trust.

Back in the days of the TV hit show, Mad Men, the corporate “spin machine” might have churned out a well-crafted response in a time of crisis and then the public may have given a collective sigh of relief, as trust in organizations was fairly high at the time. But as authors of the recent Harvard Business Review article, “Volkswagen and the end of corporate spin” point out, the public today, as a general rule, errs on the side of mistrusting organizations. Although people can be quite forgiving, organizations seem to be starting at ground zero on the trust barometer scale, and must earn their customers trust over time.

The article points out that those feelings of mistrust, coupled with the landscape of social media along with other factors, has completely transformed the environment in which we must communicate today. The authors suggest that corporations take the notion of “corporate transparency” one step further, employing what they call “radical honesty,” whereby one is proactive about its transparency, making everything publicly available, and quickly.

While “radical honesty” may not seem like your cup of tea, we agree with the authors that, in today’s world, an organization’s truth not only will get out, but it probably already is out. In the spirit of this belief, the article provides some excellent general guidelines to communicate effectively in today’s brave new world:

  • Straight and soon. Get the story out honestly and quickly – always assume you have less time than you think.
  • Flood the zone. Use many channels – you need to connect with different kinds of stakeholders, different generations, genders, cultural backgrounds, with different communication habits.
  • Good, bad, and ugly. Encourage honest conversations about both hopes and fears. Remember that power relationships sanitize information that gets to the top. Ensure people can bring bad news, not just good.
  • Distill and simplify. Keep communication simple and relevant, don’t drown people in irrelevant data.
  • Repeat. Find ways to reiterate the message and build feedback loops. Remember that trust builds slowly and quickly fades once the message stops, or when people see or hear contrary data.

At McKenzie Worldwide, we help our clients communicate their authentic brand voice to customers, as well as guide them through this new world of communication—during day to day operations as well as in times of crisis.

What are you doing to help “keep it real” with your customers? If you need help, give us a call!

Anne Schneider

Author: Anne Schneider

More than 20 years of experience building and executing global communications programs and managing relationships with the media, industry analysts & other influential communities.

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