New Year is, traditionally, a time when we commit to diets, teetotalism, fitness regimes or generally being more laudable people in a promise – to ourselves more than anyone else – to be ‘better’ somehow. And, traditionally, we tend to break those promises after (and this is, admittedly, a wild approximation) a month. But while a cheeky glass of Chenin or going a fortnight without Zumba may be a New Year’s promise broken they are not, generally speaking, fatal – either literally or metaphorically.
But rash promises made to others – particularly to the media – really can be fatal to one’s reputation, especially when they are unambiguous, cast-iron pledges. Here are some examples of those who learnt the hard way:
“Don’t be evil” – probably the world’s most recognisable unofficial marketing slogan – has been a huge liability for Google’s image.
Rather problematically for Google, definitions of “evil” are somewhat subjective – allowing critics to claim that the company has turned its back on its informal mantra time and time again. Having a near-monopoly on the Internet as a commercial enterprise; photographing houses to build Street View; funnelling money through Bermuda to reduce their tax bill – all considered evil by some and perfectly right and proper for others. The problem, though, is that Google allowing “Don’t be evil” to be the unofficial slogan was tantamount to paying for a billboard with the words “I sincerely swear never do anything that anyone in the entire world will deem in any way objectionable, ever” next to a picture of Eric Schmidt’s face. In the end, it’s just counter-productive to have a psuedo-mission statement which is so easily broken.
They don’t come much more unambiguous than this; in the run-up to their takeover of iconic British chocolatier Cadbury’s, Kraft said that they wanted to reverse Cadbury’s decision to close down their Somerdale plant near Britain.
In an effort to make sure that the international food company was seen to be ‘keeping Cadbury’s British’, Kraft made a horrible mistake – suggesting they could manage to keep a factory open against market pressures.
The expectations Kraft raised were simply too high. Less than two weeks after the takeover, Kraft announced that the proposed Somerdale shut-down would, indeed, go ahead. Sparking protests.
And finally, huge swathes of the Congressional Republican Party now know that a promise made publicly nearly always proves to be a millstone around your neck.
In the heady days of Reagan, a number of Republican members of Congress signed up to a pledge, devised by lobbyist Grover Norquist, that they would oppose “any and all efforts” to raise income taxes.
98% of current House Republicans and 87% of Republican Senators have signed the pledge. The long-running debate over the recent fiscal cliff was largely about that very pledge, with Republicans in both houses of Congress refusing to budge an inch on supporting a bill which raised taxes – even if the outcome of not supporting the bill was, in fact, automatic tax rises. In the end, they had to capitulate – and walk off the Hill with egg on their faces.
President Obama, in contrast, has been touted as the winner – making compromises where needed but, ultimately, sticking to the general principle of higher taxes for higher earners.
For the sake of keeping consistent communications, it’s best to avoid promises as earnestly as you would avoid radioactive waste – it may not hurt you now, but it may well at some point in the future.