The third week of every month,
I attend an entrepreneur meetup in a nearby hotel. The
evening starts with a company talking about its business
success, followed by questions and answers, and then a
networking session amongst the visitors. The most recent
speaker was the managing director of Microsoft Thailand,
informing all the attendees, with their tongues hanging out
like begging dogs, how Microsoft had made 70 million lives
better. I became so bored with the propaganda, I spent the
remaining time in the back where Microsoft salesmen eagerly
demonstrated Microsoft's poorly received Surface tablet
Occasionally, a real
entrepreneur, of a no-name smallish company, shows up to
deliver a real talk about entrepreneurship. But sadly, the
norm is multinationals with a Thai presence serving up the
PR spiel about why their company is a leader in the
industry, an innovator, a game changer. You've heard all
this crap before. On YouTube, a talk of this nature would be
lucky to get more than fifty views.
At the very least these
business spokespersons are talking about something
even if that something isn't directly applicable to
entrepreneurship. If you could manage to pay
attention throughout these excruciating borefests made worse
with their accompanying cluttered PowerPoint slides, you
might be able to pick up a thing or two of value.
Which is more than most
spokespersons. Pick up the paper. Read the news. Skim the
internet. Most spokespersons spend a fair amount of time
talking about what amounts to absolutely nothing.
At the latest G20 Summit
in St. Petersburg,
Syria was one of the topics of discussion. To bomb or not to
bomb. Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for the Russian
president, commented after the first day of the summit, "A
number of states maintained the stance on the necessity of
hasty measures ignoring any legitimate international
institutions. A number of other states called against the
depreciation of the international law and to remember that
only the UN Security Council has the right to make decisions
on the use of force."
handful. Peskov made sure to use a lot of words. Verbose
statements sound like they're packed with real content. Boil
away the filler and Peskov said that some states think
unilateral action should be taken against Syria while others
choose to leave it up to the UN. Doesn't any international
dilemma involve these same choices? Think of both Iraq wars,
North Korea, Iran and its uranium enrichment scheme. Either
a country or a coalition takes matters into its own hands or
the UN passes a resolution first. Peskov added not a
micro-ounce of insight into anything that was discussed at
the G20. He said nothing.
historian Will Durant once said that "To say nothing,
especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy."
Since Durant's time, saying nothing has evolved into an art
form. Plenty of people are handsomely paid to add zero value
to things which never had any value in the first place.
Do any of
you remember the ridiculous ads comedian Jerry Seinfeld did
for Microsoft back in 2008? In the first ad, Jerry spots
Bill Gates in a bargain footgear store and coaches him on
the appropriate shoes to buy. The second has Jerry and Bill
living with real people in their home. Both ads are played
for comedy, but neither Jerry or Bill are good actors or
have impeccable comic timing, and the ads weren't well
written to begin with. Years from now these ads will
probably appear on some blogger's list of MOST SENSELESS AND
COSTLY ADS EVER MADE. At the time, the ads were heckled. No
one, including myself, could figure out what the ads were
for. Microsoft's name wasn't mentioned until the last 30
seconds. Bill Gates wasn't cast in a hip new light. Pairing
him with a sitcom star whose show had gone off the airwaves
a decade earlier wasn't the best way to make Bill and
Microsoft look relevant. A proposed third commercial never
aired, and Jerry Seinfeld ceased to be Microsoft's celebrity
Microsoft's reaction? "We figured that that sort of obscure
nature of the communications would make people lean in a
little more closely to see what we were going to do next.
And that part certainly worked, in the sense that everybody
leaned in, and they paid a lot more attention to our
subsequent work," said one spokesman, David Weber. Tom Pilla, general manager of corporation communications at
Microsoft, added, "Jerry was fantastic and we appreciate the
value he brought to this campaign. These were teaser ads to
start a conversation and get a buzz going. This was the plan
the entire time."
dressed up worthless nothings. If Jerry were so fantastic,
if he brought so much value to the campaign, why didn't he
appear in any more ads? His compadre in Seinfeld,
Jason Alexander, lasted longer as Kentucky Fried Chicken's
pitchman. These Seinfeld-Gates teaser ads did not start a
conversation, get any buzz going, or encourage anyone to
lean in closer to see what was coming next. Be honest,
folks! Did you converse, go with the buzz, or lean in to
hear more from Microsoft? Plus these ads cost Microsoft
upwards of $10m for Jerry Seinfeld's performance.
than treat the public like buffoons, would it have been so
hard for Microsoft to have been honest? Couldn't the
Microsoft spokesman have said instead, "The Seinfeld ads
didn't generate the reaction we anticipated. We wanted to
show Microsoft as a company which solves real human problems
for real people, and Bill Gates as the compassionate human
visionary who has led the company to where it is today"?
This reaction might have actually generated the buzz and the
leaning in the real spokesmen were fantasizing about.
spokesperson has about as much reason to reveal the truth as
a mainstream newspaper does. A newspaper is bound to push
the agenda of its corporate backers. What bills are good,
what politicians should be re-elected, who is responsible
for the condition of the economy, and so on. The
spokesperson's field of vision is much narrower. He just has
to express his company's or employer's viewpoint as
uncontroversially as he possibly can. The typical
spokesperson isn't looking for acclaim. Many times, his name
isn't even mentioned after his virtually useless statements.
If he's doing his job brilliantly, the public should tune
out everything he says yet remember he said something,
which usually equates to nothing.
Chris Lane, an Australian on a baseball scholarship at an
Oklahoma university, was shot to death by three disaffected
youth. The kids were bored. Others might go see a movie or
go bowling when bored. These kids decided to kill someone.
Lane's parents must now be wishing their son stuck to
cricket. President Obama issued a statement through his
spokesman: "The president and first lady's thoughts and
prayers are with Chris Lane's family and friends in these
trying times." In this case, the presidential statement is
so run-of-the-mill, anyone, including the President himself,
could have said it without needing a spokesman. More likely,
the President didn't even know about the shooting, and his
spokesman chimed in with a generic uncontroversial snippet
that would neither make the President look good or bad. The
point for the public was to remember the President said
life, we tend to speak up on an issue – and get quoted on it
– when we actually know something about it which others
might also wish to know. If you work as a mechanical
engineer, you may act as an unofficial spokesman to your
department head about what work your team is accomplishing.
A well regarded criminal defense lawyer in Wyoming might get
asked by the local paper to make comments about a high
profile legal case going on in New York. Salesmen out in the
field are possible spokesmen for their company if they can
tell a potential customer about the company's product
offerings and how they'll be of benefit to the customer.
But in the
world of corporations, celebrity, and politics, spokespeople
issues statements because that's what they're paid to do.
Corporate functionaries, celebrities, and politicians always
want themselves in front of the masses' eyes and to do this,
they need to issue a statement about something without
assess how worthless a statement is by asking whether you
could craft a similar fragment without knowing anything
about the subject. Going back to Peskov's statement about
the G20, would you have had to personally be there to state
that some nations wanted to launch a preemptive strike
against Syria and others wanted to go through official UN
channels? Notice Peskov didn't bother to mention which
countries were in each camp. That's how ineffectual his
Did you know who Chris Lane
was? Probably not. No matter. If I told you a man named Jack
Ass was cruelly knifed in an alleyway last night and I
needed you to write an official statement, you could, while
simultaneously stoned and inebriated, compose something
along the lines of "Our deepest sympathies go out to Jack
Ass, his family, his friends, and all who cared about him.
He will not be forgotten." You could use this identical
condolence for literally anyone on the planet save for a
mass murderer, paedophile, or dictator.
Nowadays, with social media
tools like Twitter, corporate sinecures, politicians, and
celebrities can issue their statements directly to their
fans instead of going through a press release. Don't kid
yourself. I'd say odds are high that many of these tweets
are still being drafted by professional spokespersons. When
Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer in 2009,
celebrities started tweeting their hearts out. "Patrick, you
are loved by so many and your light will forever shine in
all our lives," said Demi Moore. "I will always cherish my
amazing memories of Patrick. We had so much fun together.
Come back soon, Patrick. We need you here on earth," wrote
Kirstie Alley. "Very sad news about the passing of P Swayze.
He was a kind and generous man. Respect," stated Ben
Okay, those three tweeters
all knew Patrick Swayze. Kirstie Alley acted alongside him
in the TV miniseries North and South
in 1985. Ben Stiller had a
small role in Swayze's 1989 film Next Of Kin.
And Demi Moore appeared
with him in 1990's Ghost.
Did they remain close with
Swayze forever after? You wouldn't know from reading the
tweets. Anyone who never met Patrick could have written
What's more, you and I know
damned well that in Hollywood a celebrity never speaks
poorly of someone else in public because he never know how
it might affect his career. Watch an interview with a
celebrity and hear him answer how it was working with
such-and-such a director or actor in his latest film. You
can fill in any names you choose and still be able to draft
the answer, the spokesperson's answer: "It was an honor and
privilege to work with so-and-so." If a celebrity really
wants to go over the top, he'll call so-and-so a genius.
Death is probably a poor,
yet at the same time illuminating, example of how worthless
spokespersons' statements can be. Were I to tell you that
Joe Public just passed away, although you never knew Joe
Public or had any idea who he was, your first reaction,
unless you're a sociopath, is to say, "I'm sorry to hear
that." Few people would have been thrilled to hear about
Patrick Swayze's – or anyone's – passing, even if they had
no clue who he was. So when famous celebrities tweet about
Patrick's death publicly, the condolences are mostly
meaningless, despite the tweeter possibly being sincere in
his intentions. Condolences are typically delivered in
private, to the departed's loved ones and family, not to
one's own personal list of fans. It sounds more kosher,
though just as trivial, to hear a hackneyed morsel from a
corporation, such as when 20th
Century Fox Television called fallen overdosing
Glee lead, Cory
Monteith, "an even more exceptional person … a true joy to
work with." Could they really call Monteith anything else?
Not so long ago, the domain
of the meaningless statement was reserved for the
professional spokesperson. Today, everyone with a mobile
phone can relay meaningless drivel to all his followers,
Twitter Counter publishes the Twitter Top 100. Justin Bieber
tops the list with 45.8m followers. His latest post reads, "So much love for the fans. You are always there for me and
I will always be there for you. Much love. Thanks." I'll
copy those insightful sentences down to pass onto my
followers when I reach 45.8m.
This is not a diatribe
against social media. I've witnessed social media put to
good use. A software company lets all its followers know
about an upgrade. A musicians lets his fans know the
location of his next concert. But anything that can be used
to save time can also be used, equivalently, to waste it.
The art of saying nothing
was already a quite developed skillset before the internet.
Technology has just made it simpler for all of us to become
equally adept at saying nothing all the time.