True Believers

Mike Sockol suggests that being honest and being credible are not necessarily the same thing.

In 1934, social activist and author Upton Sinclair shocked the political establishment in California, when he secured the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination.  His platform for eradicating poverty may not have been new, but the spirited tactics deployed by his opponents were.   According to a recent article in New Yorker Magazine, Sinclair would become the first major victim of a newfangled idea—the paid political consultant.

Sinclair unhappily called Campaigns, Inc, the firm hired by his Republican opponents, the Lie Factory, in part because of the consulting firm’s effective strategy of recycling Sinclair’s past writings (sometimes even taking quotes from fictional characters from his novels), and using them to mislead voters about his views.   Jill Lepore liked that description so much that she used it as the headline for her New Yorker piece.

But is it fair to immediately assume that everything uttered by a politician is a lie?  We live in a complex age in which issues usually defy easy answers and often create deeply divided camps whose members strongly believe their side to be right.  The information age further complicates matters.  There is always a lot of data around to support your point of view.

Campaigns, Inc, like all of the political consultants that followed it, succeeded by defining issues around a specific point of view, and in doing so, deliberately captured mindshare by forcing people to choose a position.  It seems counter-intuitive, since politics is about rallying as many people as you can to your side, but actually it’s about identifying who already supports you, solidifying their support, and convincing independents to join your cause.

In this scenario, honesty is the still the best policy, but credibility may be even more important, especially when the discourse revolves around bias and opinion, not outright mendacity.  It matters in business as well as politics.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines credibility “as the quality or power of inspiring belief.”  To make people believe what you say involves the effective use of facts to support a specific perspective, and in certain cases, offers  different positions than what your target audience may currently embrace.   So how do you nurture and protect credibility?

When I managed a corporate Intranet site, survey after survey showed that 75 percent of our employees believed what they read, even though it reflected a strong corporate view.  That’s a higher rating than most major news publications, which are supposed to be unbiased.  I found three factors are critical for building and maintaining credibility.

  • Consistency—an old boss of mine once said that he knew his message was getting through once he was bored saying it.  It always takes time for your audience to receive and accept the information you give them.  If you embrace its essence, they will embrace it, too.  When you keep changing the message, you create doubt and dissonance.
  • Accessibility—human contact goes a long way towards building the relationships that sustain a person’s credibility.  We trust people we know, so if you have a message to deliver, you need to take steps to ensure a continuous dialogue to help people understand what you are trying to say and to win them towards your point of view
  • Expertise—we regularly turn to experts for answers, and often defer to their judgment.  Credibility closely follows this association.  When American Chicle introduced Trident sugarless gum in the 1960s, it built market share by continually promoting a study of dentists who overwhelmingly “recommended” sugarless gum to their patients who chewed gum.

Building credibility requires you to be stay consistent, to be willing to express your views openly, and to demonstrate the expertise behind your opinion.  In the long run, earning respect can be more important than winning the argument.  You obtain credibility when people perceive that your opinions are based upon how you interpret what you believe to be true.  You lose it if people believe you manipulate information to deliberately mislead.

Mike Sockol has been a writer and communications strategist for over 30 years, developing and implementing editorial, PR and marketing communications initiatives for companies and organizations of all sizes.  If you need help to solve your own communications challenges, visit www.msockol.com for more information or contact Mike directly at 732.682.8361.

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Jeff Rossi October 01, 2012 at 11:55 AM
Great perspective Mike. In my opinion, credibility in the corporate world manifests itself a lot differently than in the political world. Your three points for building credibility mean a lot in the corporate world, and they still hold true. In politics, and particularly because of social media, there is so much noise, that in some cases the three factors are rendered useless. That's why we see some much clawing and scratching going on in politics. It's the politicians trying to obtain that credibility and finding it so hard to do so because of the noise from dissenters and social media. Times sure have changed.
Larrabee M. Smith January 07, 2013 at 01:53 AM
Mike, I was going to argue with description of how you obtain credibility but I became convinced that you are right but, if you belief is frequently in error, you will eventually lose. In any event, I have to disagree with Mr. Rossi. I think the fundamentals are the same in the political world as in the Corporate world. The difference to me is that the listener in the Corporate world is more likely to understand and is less ignorant of the relevant fact than in the political world. I've listened, since I retired many years ago, to a lot of politicians at all levels and they seldom know what they are talking about. They seem to get most of what they spiel from the media that always seems to have an agenda without a concern for facts.


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