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The risks of playing it safe
“Never was anything great achieved without danger.” - Machiavelli
Fortune favors the bold. Corporate comms, traditionally, does not. As an industry, we communicators are very skilled at being careful, measured, safe. These are all good things, but they stand in the way of great things.
There’s a common belief that less risk equals less error. That’s wrong. Rather, when you avoid risks, you don’t make fewer mistakes — you make different mistakes. You make mistakes of omission. And for startups in particular, those are the worst kind of mistakes because your enemy is the status quo. When you only play it safe, you forfeit opportunities to define a new category, change people's minds, stoke an important debate, and maybe even change the whole trajectory of your company.
Won’t taking risks also lead to mistakes? Yes, inevitably. But here’s the key: don’t do anything obviously dumb.
Admittedly that’s hard (I’ve done plenty of dumb things and can confirm they’re only recognizable in retrospect), but at least don’t do anything illegal or unethical. Don’t be brash or driven by emotion. Develop strong instincts and use them. Then you can take educated bets on yourself, and when you make mistakes they’ll be mistakes of commission — data-rich mistakes, the kind of mistakes that help you hone your craft. Over the long term, you’ll win more than you lose, and your Ls will be productive and respectable, even if they feel crummy as all failures do.
In any case, you don’t have much of a choice. When you’re building something, the quickest way to improve the product is to get what my old boss, Substack CEO Chris Best, calls “contact with reality,” so you can learn from real-world experience and calibrate your work. In comms, when the product you’re building is opinions (the softest software of all), testing out ideas in the real world is even more important because the interaction between your comms strategy and the collective human psychology of your audience is simply too complex to predict in the abstract. You have to put things into the wild and see how they do. Cross the river by feeling the stones.
It’s easy to find an excuse to avoid risk. A frequent lie I’ve told myself is: “I’d love to try a new way to do X, but my team is at capacity and I probably wouldn’t get the green light anyway.” If you do this too, join me in renouncing the scarcity mindset. The scarcity mindset will tell you that you don’t have enough people or budget, so why bother to plan something big. Or, it will tell you that you won’t get enough publicity, so you should just have your CEO interview with low-quality media outlets that you secretly know are a waste of time.
That kind of FUD creeps in easily; even as I’m typing this post, I know I’ll have to fight it later today. But sheltering in the safety of “tried and true” tactics is like keeping your assets in cash. You should definitely do some of that, and it’s fine for short periods or during a crisis. But if that’s all you ever do in the long term, you’ll never build your portfolio — in fact, as the rest of the economy grows, your purchasing power will shrink and shrink.
When you’re creating something original, you don’t have the luxury of following someone else’s dog-eared playbook. Great companies don’t get built on minimizing downside, but on maximizing upside. The same goes for the comms strategies that define those companies’ brands over time.
So if there’s an idea that’s been tugging at you, try it — and if it doesn’t work, try something else. The world won’t stand still and neither should you. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious brand?
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