An Aperture Interview with Merrie Spaeth
August 9th, 2012
Throughout an extremely accomplished career, Merrie Spaeth has worked in government, business and the entertainment industry. Most importantly, however, is her work as an expert in communication, revolutionizing the way that executives and business professionals present, converse and lead. Ms. Spaeth founded Spaeth Communications in 1987, and has also found time to pen two influential books on communication, as well as teach communication classes as a Business Leadership Center Instructor at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. We spoke with Ms. Spaeth about communication, politics, crisis communications and acting, among many other topics during an extremely enlightening conversation via telephone.
EVINS: Could you give us a brief overview of your professional career and how it led to the founding of Spaeth Communications?
Merrie Spaeth: I’ve had many wonderful experiences, from being in the movie with Peter Sellers “The World of Henry Orient,” up to serving as Ronald Reagan’s Director of Media Relations. I found myself in Dallas having married a Texan who was also in Washington in the administration. I started the company because I needed to keep up my end of our financial arrangement and support half of us. We had an insight on our very first day, from Jim Adams, the CEO of Southwestern Bell Telephone. They had started an enterprise-wide quality initiative; as part of that, they were sending employees out to talk to customers. He turned to me and said, “Merrie, it’s the darndest thing. What we’ve discovered is that the customer does not remember what we thought we told him.” That was an epiphany. I realized that most companies and enterprises approach communication thinking of what they want to say or what they think somebody needs to know. Then when you ask, “How much DOES your listener remember, a lot or a little?” everybody knows it’s just a little. Thus, we spent the last 25 years applying that first insight, developing a model and a methodology to flesh it out and teach it and study its implications for companies and enterprises. This has proven to be a very interesting and also fruitful 25 years. I was just introduced at a meeting by the general counsel of a company called Driven Brands, which owns Meineke Motors and others, at the general counsel’s session for the international franchising association. His introduction said: “Merrie transformed my life.” We think of ourselves as communication trainers and strategists, but what we really want to do is transform how individuals and companies think about communication.
EVINS: As far as executives and professionals that you’ve trained in the art of effective communication, are there some common mistakes that you’ve noticed?
MS: The first thing is that people think they can communicate because they can talk and because they know a lot about a subject. I hear all the time, “I don’t need training” or “I don’t need to rehearse! I already know it, and I don’t have time.” In effective communication, the first step is away from “what do I want to say?” with a leap to “who’s my audience, and how do I influence what they hear, believe and remember?” While that sounds like common sense, it’s an enormous change in attitude. The second thing is that people tend to think that effective communication is delivery. While that is, of course, important, what matters is having a message that’s designed to influence what the audience remembers and illustrating it in a way that’s motivational. If you don’t have that, eye contact and hand gestures really don’t matter much.
EVINS: As far as virtual and online communication goes, the rise of social media has made it more necessary to train employees regarding communication. Have you seen first-hand the increasing pervasiveness of online communication and how that has changed communication?
MS: It’s revolutionized communication. I would describe myself as an active observer and learner. We’re looking at things from a company’s or an enterprise’s point of view. For us, it’s really a question of stakeholder engagement, whether it’s your employees or your customers. You have to create channels and engage them or they’re going to go engage themselves. Particularly for a company’s employees today, you have to find a way to engage them. We’ve been looking at what’s happening with the Olympics. You couldn’t tell the athletes “don’t tweet” because they’re going to be out there; they’re doing it. It’s a channel and a platform that that age group is using aggressively; that means you’re going to have a few people who use it wrong. The issue is: how do you understand that? This spring, the National Labor Relations Board handed down seven decisions, all but one of which really restrict a company’s ability to control its employees’ ability to use social media. Understanding the very amorphous area of regulation and law today is really important for companies. Then, you have disasters like the McDonald’s disaster in January where they wanted to encourage people to tweet and people ended up tweeting horror stories. I bet the whole campaign lasted two hours before they shut it down. You wrote about that on one of the [Evins Aperture] blog posts I saw. I think we’re in an age of intense experimentation. You have to go into it thinking like that. I think there are very few people whose tweets are really interesting enough for people to follow them; however, that almost doesn’t matter because it’s become a form of self-expression.
EVINS: How important do you think it is for businesses to have a crisis communications strategy in place? You mentioned McDonald’s, and it seems like every other day we’re hearing about another PR or social media disaster for businesses. Is that something they should attempt even if they don’t have or can’t afford an agency, or is that something that should be strictly left to the professionals?
MS: I can’t imagine an organization that shouldn’t have various TIERS of crisis preparedness. It at least means thinking through:
- What are the twenty or so things that could happen that could have a negative impact on our reputation?
- Who would respond? Along what channel?
- What would we say?
- Who are our audiences?
- If it’s going to generate any images, what kind of competitive images or video do we have?
Any company can ask those questions. That’s sort of “Crisis 101.” It is surprising how many companies haven’t done that. I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff I’ve written on BPand Penn State, but the bigger issues are: what could happen that we don’t want to admit could happen? That gets you to a systemic issue of risk mitigation that large enterprises should be asking themselves today. The Penn State issue, I don’t look at as a crisis issue, but as more of a systemic issue that they didn’t have any way of analyzing or tackling. It is almost criminal not to have thought about a crisis before it happens.
EVINS: Bringing up Penn State, that’s a great example. Is there anything that they could have done even with that knowledge – when it’s something that’s kind of related to your business but not necessarily?
MS: The football problem captured the university. It’s clear that there were rumors and there was subterranean knowledge circulating that nobody wanted to open the door and find out about. I guess we’ll debate forever what Coach Paterno did or did not actually “know.” One of the things that I learned when I was working for Bill Webster at the FBI was that when you’re in charge, it’s your job to set up a system so you hear things that people think you don’t want to hear.
EVINS: Do you think it’s important for every business to figure out what “skeletons” may be in their closets?
MS: I would cast it more systemically. They need to set up a system so that the people at the top who are supposed to be leaders hear things that people think they don’t want to hear.
EVINS: I don’t think there are many businesses that actually do that. On a lighter note, each year your company selects a “Bimbo of the Year” award for public statements. Is there anything that stands out in 2012 so far?
MS: There’s SO much competition. From a business point of view, the New York law firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf’s comment, “we’re not going bankrupt,” stands out. By the end of the month, they were bankrupt. I loved that because it was like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion with entirely predictable results. Of course, we’re interested in how communication affects behavior. Although there are some hilarious things, there are the things that are very serious. Earlier this year, the U.S. Head of the U.S. subsidiary, one of the largest flavoring companies in the world, was on 60 Minutes and they were standing in an orange grove. Morley Safer was talking to him and the CEO talks about how you want quick bursts of flavor so people come back for more. Morley Safer says, “So, you’re in the business of addiction?” And the guy goes, “Exactly!” Then Morley Safer says, “So, you’re promoting an addictive taste?” The guy says, “That’s a good word!” Of course, our readers collapsed in laughter because addiction is a very bad word. When I think of all the things that didn’t happen that could have prevented that from happening, I think, how did this clown get on 60 Minutes? How many touch points were there in between that that could have prevented that? That’s the kind of thing I’m really interested in because it’s interesting strategically as well as being very funny in terms of word use.
EVINS: As far as executives go, there’s a lot of headstrongness that you need to get through, a lot of stubbornness that seems to pervade everything that they do. I’m wondering how difficult that process is?
MS: We have a teaching technique that [Mathew Evins] will tell you is absolutely fool-proof. We don’t tell people, we engage them and we show them how they pick up and repeat each other’s words. Then, once they’re sensitized to that, we take them through a simplistic but extremely robust descriptive system; there are good words and bad words. Once people are clued into that, the bad words just leap out at them. Anybody who’s been through any of my classes would never have done that.
EVINS: Now, I have to ask, what was Peter Sellers like? Did you spend a lot of time with him on the set?
MS: I’m happy to talk about it. Peter Sellers was hilarious and wonderful. We watched him invent Inspector Clouseau. In retrospect, he was probably very lonely. He was just delighted to have Tippy and me sit at his feet and look at him with wild adoration. We spent hours together.
EVINS: That’s wonderful. Thank you very much for sharing your time and expertise with us. Is there anything that you’d like to add?
MS: I’d like to tip my hat to EVINS. They have always recognized the importance of having a consistent framework, model and methodology which gets everybody using the same approach to communication. Evins is certainly one of the most adept practitioners at understanding how to leverage that for their clients and how to use resources that are both time-efficient and cost-efficient. Of course, that makes it a pleasure for us to work with EVINS.
Read the blog post here.