December 23rd marks the centennial of one of the most financially powerful, political divisive and controversial institutions in American history: The birth of the Federal Reserve System, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, and the beginning of an ongoing debate about the organization's opaque origins, constitutional authority, global influence, effectiveness and centralized authority. But the Fed is also a metaphor for the dangers every company faces, which involve poor communications (a form of marketing malpractice) and the failure, to this day, to make complex policy intelligible – and accepted – by the public at large.
In contrast to the Fed's many problems, and here I am neither a supporter nor an opponent of specific decisions about monetary supply or interest rates, the rise in popularity of bitcoins (a phenomenon I first addressed here) illustrates both the necessity of consistent communications and the value of making an otherwise sophisticated, mathematically-based form of peer-to-peer digital currency accessible – in theory and practice – to tens of millions of people worldwide.
This comparison contains lessons for all business leaders, in all industries, because it represents the fundamental difference between passivity and action — the distinction between allowing critics to shape and own your message, as opposed to you taking the lead and educating citizens, for their satisfaction and your success. Simply stated, be proactive, not reactive; the former is yours to control, though the latter is – and will always be – beyond your control.
Show and Tell: The Power of Proactive Messaging
The reason proactive messaging works is the same reason (more about anon) bitcoins are now a global success, revealing, too, what does not work. I return, therefore, to the founding of the Fed, the failure of its various Chairmen (and soon-to-be Chairwoman) to speak in plain English, worsened by a reputation – a coveted status, ironically – for talking like an oracle: The delivery of sobering words, absorbed with awe and reverence, later translated into meaning — nothing!
Please note: My criticism of the Fed has nothing to do with their economic policies – I have my own opinions on the central bank's many decisions, certainly – but my focus is on the organization's failure to resolve a century's worth of rumors, innuendo and conspiracy theories, which are not an isolated phenomenon among extremists and cranks.
We are at a point now, sadly, where mainstream individuals – celebrities, university professors and politicians – ascribe all manner of wrongdoing, including presidential assassinations, to policies relating to the Fed. The murder of Abraham Lincoln is even fodder for these individuals, who cite the bank's involvement in the shooting despite the separation of nearly a half-century between the president's murder and the creation of the Fed. The same conspiracy theorists attribute the killing of John F. Kennedy to the Fed, because of the late president's issuance of an Executive Order on June 4, 1963.
My point is simple: Any institution that does not constantly communicate with the public, and instead elevates passivity as an admirable brand of principle, will forever suffer the taint of illegitimacy — as if its actions are part of some global plot to upend political and religious authority, use diversion as a means of sowing chaos and eliminate any remaining constraints against its plans to achieve global supremacy. Paranoid, unsubstantiated doctrines, yes; successfully dispelled articles of faith among the fringe, no.
Alas, these problems may plague the Fed indefinitely because these vicious lies are no longer the seeds planted by malcontents; they now constitute a grand forest of propaganda, which no truth-seeker can totally eradicate. To CEOs, these events should be a warning and a reminder about ceding the conversation to opponents and enemies: That you must educate your supporters, and immediately refute your critics.
A Model for the New Era of Media: Putting Facts First
These precedents are one of several reasons for the success of bitcoins, in which advocates have a clear example of what not to do. At a minimum, there is a much greater premium on explanation than the issuance of decrees, which speaks to differences in the concentration and exercise of power by a single individual. For, bitcoins are not the product of a centralized institution, led by a political appointee whose policies often do not square with mathematics or anything approximating economic science.
For CEOs, the takeaway theme in this distinction between the Fed and the international embrace of bitcoins is one of transparency and dialogue, not mad dissent. Or, start from a position of strength, in which the facts justify your actions, and then disseminate the intellectual validity of your decisions across all types of new and traditional media. And, if your policy is inherently complex (mathematics is a language unto itself, for which complete fluency is permanently elusive), reduce its essence into easily digestible morsels of content.
In other words, emulate the behavior of the scientist-as-storyteller. The late Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman are ideal examples of this point, which extends to the way experts discuss the purpose and function of bitcoins, because both men have a legacy for making the most profound subjects of cosmology (like the shape of the universe) and physics (like the behavior of light) understandable and fun.
So, if we can appreciate these things, and millions of people already accept these conclusions without having any proficiency in advanced mathematics, then we have – and can replicate – a model from the world of bitcoins and popular science: An ability to take seemingly abstract ideas, replete with formulas and indecipherable (to a majority of individuals) symbols, and articulate our arguments with absolute clarity.
For a CEO, the final rule governing these examples and suggestions is twofold. One, always describe and defend – in short declarative sentences – the essence of your actions. And two, never make truth a sacrificial commodity or a permissible casualty among critics with no respect for honesty. In a word: Communicate!
Hayden Gill is the Founder of Buzzdron Media, an innovative digital marketing and design agency. An expert concerning the use of bitcoins for online transactions and e-commerce, Hayden can be reached at [email protected].