Communications: the black art of saying nothing

The bow said it all. Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota, has finally admitted to a degree of contrition for failing to tell his customers that his cars were potentially lethal.

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., bows as he arrives for a news conference in Nagoya, Japan, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2010. Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. recall of 5.6 million vehicles for possible unintended acceleration may spur regulators to require braking technology that prevents such sudden bursts of speed in all future vehicles. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Akio Toyoda 629882.jpg *** Local Caption *** Akio Toyoda 629882.jpg
Powered by automated translation

The bow said it all. Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota, has finally admitted to a degree of contrition for failing to tell his customers that his cars were potentially lethal. The 45-degree bend he executed is rather a measly affair, reminiscent of the greeting Mr Nobu gives me every time I enter one of his restaurants. It is more of a welcome than an apology. Not sufficiently grovelling when you realise the company knew about the problems last summer and failed to pass on the news.

Personally I would have welcomed a dogeza - the kneeling, head on floor, full act of supplication that lasts for at least 30 seconds. At least that way, the next time the accelerator sticks on my Toyota and I go hurtling towards a wall, I can reassure myself that Mr Toyoda is sorry. Really, really very sorry; extremely, I can't tell you how much I'm sorry. Or maybe he is reserving that kind of atonement for when a Lexus driver gets into a scrape.

The other person I was expecting a mea culpa from was Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs chief executive. And in a way, we got it. It was a very buttoned up affair, like a Brooks Brothers' shirt, but it came, not through bowing, clasping hands together or in words, but in figures. Mr Blankfein accepted a measly US$9 million (Dh33m) bonus for his exertions last year, a year in which his bank, Goldman Sachs, garnered the rather extraordinary profits of $13.39 billion.

His measly $9m - less than half the amount trousered by his great rival from Morgan Stanley - must have made him feel like he was working for free. The company also gave $500m to its charity, Goldman Sachs Gives. For once it was planning to give to somebody else and not just its chief executive. So, let's take it as a sorry for now and see what happens next bonus time. Part of all this is the message it gives out. Communications is all important nowadays. Sometimes it seems to be more important than anything else. Rather than the "medium is the message", it should perhaps be "the image is the reality". How you look on your Facebook page, or how well you are LinkedIn, matters more than whether or not you do anything when you get into work.

I have been thinking particularly about communications, because after a short spell helping out some friends in the water sector, I was unceremoniously sacked. The dismissal came in an e-mail; no call, no kind words, not even a hand on the shoulder. I suppose I should be relieved that it didn't come via Twitter. My contact had been a New Yorker who spoke so quickly that I rarely understood a word she uttered. Her boss was Canadian, I think, and it was from her that I received the news:

"One of the overwhelming messages from the participants is that our communications material is not successful - we've been asked to review our materials and our approach. The first step is for us here in NY to take stock, see where we are and define our path forward - "As such, I'd like to ask you to stop working on all the tasks you are currently engaged on [materials, website, communications strategy, name change, and anything else].

Please send us any remaining draft products. When we've had a chance to see how we're going forward, we'll be in touch." I shan't be holding my breath for the call. People in the development world talk a language that is as different to English as Bo, the Andaman language that became extinct last week. It may sound the same, but it doesn't mean anything. I spent hours on conference calls listening to them explaining what they were planning to do. All of the talk was of "framework agreements", "compacts" and "prep meetings". They made me complete, online, two security courses on how to cope with abductions, car-jackings, explosions and terrorist attacks.

All this to prepare for trips to Stockholm and Washington DC. I spent a month telling them they should change their name to something vaguely meaningful. They dismissed my suggestion, spent six months debating it, and eventually settled on a name that is virtually identical. "It's all about process," they chorused, whatever that means. I had always thought that communications and journalism were similar, with the only difference being that communications people have charming smiles, are paid a lot more, and can't write.

But I have since modified my view. There are no similarities between communications and journalism people, at least not this one. Communications can now be linked with marketing - now, what do they do exactly? - advertising and other black arts. It is widely agreed that the finest master of the arts of communication is Lucas Van Praag, the Goldman Sachs public relations man. He was once a lowly director of Brunswick, a London company, but the investment bank saw his potential and snapped him up.

Last year, the bank was described as "a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity". It was also widely derided for its greed and lack of awareness as it prepared to hand out bonuses all round. Shouldn't a communications chief be able to halt the flow of vitriol from journalists' pens? Apparently not. My favourite PR people are those whose stock response is "no comment", whatever you ask them. These people are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to pick up the phone and say nothing.

Now, that's a job I could do.