I’ve been biting my tongue for twelve years. I don’t say that out of frustration, anger, or even repression. I say it because it’s true, and I am as active a participant in the situation than anyone. It’s the nature of the beast.
I work in communications. I currently head up marketing and communications for a startup I believe in so very strongly. This story is not about them, nor is it about the companies I’ve worked for in the past, at least not in the terms of who they are. It’s about where we – collectively, as a tech industry, marketing and comms in the foreground – are these days. Because I’d bet that I’m not the only one feeling this way, but maybe my thoughts will resonate with my peers. Still, that’s not why I’m sharing it.
I’m sharing it because I’ve found that my career, always thinking fifteen steps ahead, anticipating the worst, the almost-worst, and the not-nearly-as-bad-but-we’re-still-fucked, has taught me to refrain from saying what I really, truly, think about situations. In life, in love, in everything work-wise and everything but.
In college, I would declare, once a year or so, there to be a “Brutally Honest Aubrey Day”. I’d drink a few – ok, a few + a few – beers, and as we all ended up at the bar (ahem, He’s Not Here), I’d give myself the license to say all of the things I wanted to but didn’t because it would make me look uncool, make me sound needy, make that boy know that I cared more than I wanted to, make myself vulnerable. Why I wasn’t more confident than that is an exercise for forthcoming therapy, but lo, that was enlightening. To be that honest, at 18! 19! 20! (Uh, I mean, 21…), well, it taught me a lot. If anything, it taught me the power of words, that positioning is crucial, that delivery is critical, but mainly: that your feelings – good or bad – should be heard.
Fast forward 10+ years, my day-to-day involves all of this, but in many ways, it seems I’ve forgotten that lesson. Or at least sacrificed the personal for the good of the collective. I’ve spent years emphasizing: The words we choose to describe our company. The response to a negative article. The proactive discussion we elicit when it’s something within our reign. I’m careful, I’m specific, I’m intentional. Because I know the repercussions. I’m good at my job, and I’m not apologetic for it.
Previous to leading a team responsible for these decisions, I’ve been hyper-aware of the impact that employees can make at a growing company. Having been at companies like Google, Digg, & Facebook when they’re small & growing – not to mention working on the Comms team – more than anyone I knew the potential impact of my thoughts. That they might not be aligned with the “corporate narrative”. And because I cared – actually, because I still do care – I tapered them. I’ve had my hand slapped at a company for using the word “Gmail” in a Tweet (from my personal Twitter account) because they saw their product as a competitor. I’ve had my loyalty questioned for expressing apathy in a product set that was tangentially aligned with something my company was doing. And that doesn’t feel good. Whether it’s right or wrong (I have my opinion), you feel a mix of anger and embarrassment. And for me, I learned quickly, to shut up.
And yet today. I see others leaving their roles, where perhaps the constraints – be it communications or otherwise – have left them inarticulate. They’re embracing being vocal, or investing in what they want, or going on record to support things that their former companies may not necessarily agree with. Me, I feel extraordinarily lucky that I work with a team that not only doesn’t censor me, but encourages me to share what I think. It’s rare, and I’m so grateful that I found it. And yet…
My feelings were hurt last night by a friend. Nothing major, nothing relationship-breaking. Just…I was sad. And as I tried to discuss it with this person today, I went right back to what I knew. And what I knew – what I know – is corporate communications. I know about when to respond, how timing is important, how there is a strategy between the offense and the defense, and how words are innately important. I chose my response carefully, and then thought…FUCK. Where is the *me* in this response? I’m mad. I’m allowed to BE mad. I’m allowed to let this person know that they hurt my feelings, that it’s nothing major, that I understand where they’re coming from, but hey, they’d better please not do it again. And I didn’t.
I forgot: There’s power in the words not said, but that can’t compare to what could be accomplished by sharing the truth.
Because we’re so ingrained, us PR and Comms and Marketing folks, to know how to handle the most ridiculous, the most sensitive, the most pivotal of situations that often make or break a company, that we forget that there’s real life out there. And it’s ours. And it’s ours for the taking.
If we remember to take it.