Real News: Telling the Truth is Always the Safest Harbor

The other day we were meeting with a group of technology developers and after airing a proposed solution, one of the participants said, “Of course, this is safe harbor.” I hadn’t heard that expression used in the context of a business conversation, so I asked about it (and subsequently Googled the expression). I was told that “safe harbor” is used often among developers to indicate that while certain conceptual solutions are possible, the end result may or may not resemble the initial promise.

Wow. I think this is just the ticket I need as a creative. I can dream up a solution for my clients in higher ed, but I can get away with a “non-promise promise.” I can tell you (or prospective students) how things will work at your institution, but they might not when it comes down to it if I say “safe harbor,” and that will have to be fine. I like this new expression. I like this new world.

It used to be that you had to deliver on a promise. You had to describe what you would deliver and then actually deliver that thing. And, if you didn’t deliver, you were out. Apparently, that’s changed. If you say “safe harbor,” you can be saved by your good intentions.

This is a game-changer, for me, anyway. And it starts to explain some experiences I’ve had of late with customer service. It might explain why even things I’ve paid a lot of money for break. Or why I can’t seem to get what I’ve asked for. Or why I can’t get a straight answer. I think many businesses, organizations and people have adopted a “safe harbor” mentality.

While I like the alibi “safe harbor” offers as a creative, I’m not so sure it works as well for customers. I’m a fan of the Walt Disney belief that “if you can dream it, you can do it,” but I’m wondering if “safe harbor” only celebrates the dreaming, not the doing. And it’s the doing that customers count on.

When you’re encouraging a student or donor to be part of your university, it’s good to paint a picture of a bright and possible future—things that can happen. Inspiring imaginations and stretching ideas are wonderful aspects of education. But it’s equally important to talk about what will happen.

In Defense of Facts: Telling the Truth in Higher Education

At RHB we’re advocates for truth-telling. We aim for Coherence—authenticity that yields trust—to make exchange between institutions and their customers possible. Our discovery model asks three essential questions (Who are we? What do we say we are? What do others say we are?) aimed at finding the starting point of truth-telling for our clients. That level of honest assessment results in a high level of confidence that eliminates the need for “safe harbor.”

With a north star of truth in hand, you’re able to communicate without spin because you don’t need it. Of course it’s important to deliver a compelling message; but your customers will believe you if you don’t rely on clever language or inflated descriptions to say what you mean. Here are five ways to keep it real:

  1. Testimonials. Let those who know you best tell about their experiences with you. Student and alumni testimonials are valuable because they move your message away from “safe harbor” talk. Stories from those who have “been there, done that” validate your promises with examples of what, when and how. They fill in the important proof that what you claim really can happen.
  2. Storytelling. When you are developing copy and content, look for authentic examples—true stories—that you can tell to support your claims. If you don’t have access to a testimonial as described above, tell the third-person story about those students and alumni who best represent the message or promise you are making.
  3. Documentation. Back up your claims with facts. You no doubt have dozens of reports from studies that have been conducted with your students and alumni. Dust off one of those binders on your shelf and scour the contents for meaningful data to prove the point you wish to make in your message. The National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) or College Scorecard (hosted by the US Department of Education) are typically great sources of comparison data to indicate how what you deliver is distinctive.
  4. Endorsements. While rankings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, your customers pay attention to them. So when a third party gives you a nod, consider it a helpful way to show that you aren’t just giving an in-house opinion. The endorsements of those outside your institution may be stronger than your own expression.
  5. Show, don’t just tell. Waxing poetic can engage readers, but a 90-second candid video might sometimes do more to convince a prospect of the truth. Videos easily demonstrate what really happens. You can stage a still shot, but it’s tougher to pull off an ideal setting in a video. The imperfections that can occur when you’re recording a situation help validate its authenticity.

While “safe harbor” is a fun concept and no doubt creates extra (and often necessary) freedom for dreaming big and thinking creatively, in an era where facts have somehow become debatable entities, it’s more important than ever to pursue and promote the truth. Your work will always be more compelling when it’s honest and authentic, and your creative solutions will have a much higher success rate when they’re reinforced by the actual experience your institution provides.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.