In June of last year the CIA issued its first tweet. The tone was refreshingly informal and playful for what you might consider to be the epitome of the serious corporation: ‘We can neither deny nor confirm that this is our first tweet.’ The fact that this simple statement was re-tweeted almost 300, 000 times suggests that it struck a chord with the wider public.
This type of corporate informality is surprisingly difficult to deliver in the corporate world. Brands on social media can deploy humour, satire and indulge in playful banter with their followers, but corporations – constrained by compliance experts, communications advisors and a fear of making an inappropriate comment – have tended to stick to safe and bland ‘press release speak.’
There are signs, however that the innate caution of corporations is beginning to shift. The Future Foundation has recently pronounced the emergence of the self-ironising or self-deprecating organization, describing the growing use of ‘gentler, more informal, more lighthearted language’ and the increased desire of institutions to ‘appear modest, humble and well rounded.’
This isn’t simply a social media phenomenon. The Future Foundation points to the example of Newcastle Brown – which has become a phenomenal advertising success in the USA through the power of self-deprecation – and a self-critical ad by Microsoft mocking its own Internet Explorer as ‘the browser you love to hate.’ Microsoft has something of a track record of doing this: a film produced by Microsoft insiders illustrating what would have happened had ‘Microsoft designed the iPod’ has received over a million views.
We tend to admire humility and self-deprecation in people and distrust braggadocious behavour. Boris Johnson has turned self-deprecation into an art-form, admitting in an Independent newspaper article that that his bumbling self-deprecatory persona is a “cunning device” he uses to get people to trust him.‘ Sir Richard Branson has deployed a similarly artful, understated style, masking a huge ego behind a slightly shambling demeanour.
Self-deprecation and self-mockery also works for corporations. We admire those that are humble enough to admit that they don’t always get everything right or have the answer to every problem. This doesn’t mean descending to the level of self-criticism that Gerald Ratner reached when describing the products sold by his eponymous jewellery business as ‘crap’. But equally the type of self-aggrandisement adopted by many of our financial institutions and energy companies is one of the key reasons why these organisations continue to struggle to earn the trust of the wider public. They may be serious businesses but it doesn’t mean that should take themselves too seriously.
This post was originally published on Dissident.biz