Tone-Deaf Communications for Clods

By Kate Young

Let me start by saying we regret any discomfort that may have been caused by the title of this document, either to the tone-deaf community, or to clods. We are currently conducting an investigation into what went wrong with the title, and we look forward to the resolution of any misunderstandings that might have occurred among our readers.

In the meantime, it is our intention to take a closer look at tone-deaf communications.

A recent Google search of the term rendered a page littered with major brand names. A Twitter search for #tonedeaf turned up the same pantheon of brands, along with high-ranking government officials, a famous reality TV star, and a trustee of a major university. Clearly, tone-deafness is #trending.

And if your communications are thoughtful, sensitive, and appropriate, you may be wondering what you’re missing. Want to leverage the massive exposure afforded by an outraged public with access to social media? Just follow these easy tips! [Editor’s Note: Before embarking on any tone-deaf strategy, be sure to consult your compliance team.]

5 surefire tips for tone-deaf communications.

1. When searching for themes to represent your brand, focus on areas that you know little about and care about even less. The things that you actually know and love probably aren’t that cool, so that’s a red flag right there. Instead, look for images, symbols, and issues that are edgy. Esoteric. Revolutionary. Then identify ways that you can coopt those themes to fit your brand messaging. Will some folks feel offended? Darn right they will. But did you really think a revolutionary was ever going to buy your product?

2. Speaking of cool, the best way to reach your target segment is to attempt their language. Millennials don’t want to interface with the elderly. They can’t even. So make it one of your #squadgoals to get your lingo on fleek. Sure, they’ll give you the side-eye and make fun of you on social. But at least they’ll know who you are. Word.

3. Let’s be honest. The customer is NOT always right. And when the customer is wrong, you should make sure the world knows it. Your reputation is at stake, so this is no time to be tactful. That disgruntled customer is already gone—and good riddance. Now focus your energy on impressing your remaining customers with irrefutable arguments that prove you did nothing wrong. You may come across as defensive, boring, maybe even a little sinister. But it feels good to be right, doesn’t it?

4. For those times when you are in the wrong, master the art of the non-apology. During a public debacle, the public will expect you to apologize. Ouch. If you just come out and give them what they want, you’ll look culpable—or worse, weak. It’s a real catch-22! So have your cake and eat it too by issuing a non-apology. Start by using the passive voice: Accounts were compromised. Numbers were off. Throw in some euphemisms to describe what happened: re-accommodation, resource re-alignment, re-adjustment of expectations. If you’re feeling creative, you can even make up your own euphemisms! If your particular debacle has victims, be sure to shift the spotlight to anything they might have done wrong, even if it’s not connected to the problem in question. The public will be so appalled, they might not even notice that you never apologized.

5. Make it all about you. This is the real key to tone-deaf communications. When you put your goals, your needs, your experiences, and your expectations above your customers’, you can’t help but come across as tone-deaf. You wanna talk about you!

Of course, this approach isn’t right for everyone.

Side effects may include headache, nausea, public ridicule, loss of market-share, and a declining stock price. But we’re still waiting to see what kind of brand damage the reigning titans of tone-deafness will ultimately suffer. They may be fine in the end.

Nobody’s perfect.

Sometimes things just go wrong, even for the best institutions. When they do, you need to know what to say that won’t make things worse. That’s why it’s always good to have a crisis communications plan in place. ABA members even have access to a free crisis communications toolkit.

If you think through these communications now—when you’re not in crisis mode—you have a better chance at connecting with the public by providing necessary information. Honestly, authentically, and without alienating your customers.

Kate Young is the content editor of Email: [email protected].