Why communicators must proactively chase down vital firsthand information

The ‘san-gen-shugi’—roughly translated as ‘the three realities’—offers a model for how communicators can ensure they have the resources and credibility to be strategic advisors.

Comms lessons from Honda

We’ve all faced challenging assignments—a product launch, corporate initiative, or crisis response—where we feel ill-equipped to mount a successful campaign or formulate an effective strategy. The reason, we often tell ourselves, comes down to information: Either we’re not given enough of it, or what we’re given is inaccurate, incomplete or insubstantial.

I submit that these aren’t reasons; they’re excuses. The onus is on us as communicators—whether agency or in-house—to go out and get the information we need.

Within the automotive and mobility industry in particular, information-gathering is a persistent challenge due to the sheer complexity of the business and the vast array of stakeholders who either own some piece of the communication or are audiences for it—customers, suppliers, investors, regulators, policymakers, NGOs, collaborators, and associates, to name just a few.

This can be a recipe for confusion when trying to communicate clearly with audiences that always respond best to simple, straightforward messages. But we can’t just make the best of the content chaos. We have to cut through it. We have a duty to ask the tough questions, to work toward a deeper understanding, and to reflect that understanding in our counsel and execution.

One thing I’ve found helpful in this regard is a principle that I learned early during my tenure at Honda, first as an insider and later as a senior agency partner, over the course of 26 years, and most recently in my leadership role with global agency Finn Partners. It’s called “san-gen-shugi” which translates roughly as “the three realities.”  Within Honda, it was often referred to as “go to the spot” or the “genba”.

The three realities are as follows:

1. gen-ba – the real spot

2. gen-juki – the real situation

3. gen-jitsu – decisions based in reality

There are myriad ways in which san-gen-shugi can be applied. I’ve seen it used in all manner of fields, from manufacturing and engineering to emergency response and medical triage, but let’s consider it in the context of communication, and how it can help us better understand clients’ realities as a pre-condition to delivering optimal results.

The real spot: Go to the source.

Soichrio Honda himself is said to have deeply disliked second-hand information.  “Why didn’t you go see it yourself?” he would chide his fellow engineers.  Sometimes, second-hand is the best we can manage, but our aim is to get as close to the truth as possible, always.

The “spot” isn’t necessarily a physical place or thing, although if we’re talking about a product, a manufacturing facility or something similarly difficult to comprehend at a distance, then, yes, “go the spot” to see, touch and engage with the thing yourself. (COVID-19 has made this much harder, but the end is in sight!)

However, the “real spot” could just as easily be a meeting or a person. A crisis is breaking, and the HR and legal folks are meeting to discuss. Comms must demand to be in that meeting too. If the answer is no, make sure someone shares with you detailed notes.

Similarly, if the company is preparing for a product launch and all you have to work with is a sales sheet that addresses the “what” but not “who”, “how” or “why”—speak up! Ask to talk to the engineers, designers, developers or the people in the field who are selling. Get as close to the real people and real situation as you can. Your story and your results will be better for it.

The real situation: Ask plenty of questions.

You’ve gained access to the experts, the people at the spot. Now, make the most of the opportunity. Do your homework and come armed with questions aimed at gathering the unique perspective your sources possess and you need to build a proper strategy and tell a compelling story. Your questions should demonstrate that you’ve done your research, which engenders trust and helps foster a deeper discussion.

Decades of working closely with automotive engineers and technical experts—as well as all kinds of folks in sales, marketing, service and design—have shown me that if you approach people with respect and genuine curiosity, most will want to share their story.  Everyone has one, and some of the best I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell didn’t come from the upper ranks or executive boardroom. They came from the men and women in the plant, in the field, on the track—at “the spot.”

Make a realistic plan

Having gone to “the real spot,” craft your strategy with a proper accounting of the knowledge and perspectives you’ve gained.  Your company or client has made an important investment of their time and their trust. Pay it back.

Hold your plans up against all the things you now know about the product, competition, customer, stakeholder priorities, target audiences, media landscape and, finally, the expectations of the client—and not just the KPIs either, the real bottom-line value to the enterprise.

Finally, be honest with yourself and your stakeholders.  If a claim is clearly not going stand up to scrutiny in the light of day, be clear about this, and offer alternatives.  If a holding statement, as conceived, seems likely to solicit distrust and doubt, deal with it directly and immediately. And if the strategy isn’t going to produce the promised outcome, get the heck back to the drawing board.

While the founder of Honda did not originate san-gen-shugi, it is closely associated with him, and it fits quite nicely with another idea Mr. Honda firmly articulated in his writings and manifested in his company’s products and its ethos: There is honor in serving others.

If we who communicate take responsibility for information gathering in this same spirit—with genuine curiosity, integrity of purpose and a proper accounting of realities and bottom-line needs—we will establish the foundations for fulfilling our highest purpose: telling the people our clients care about what they need to know in clear, concise ways that move them to act.

Andrew Boyd is a senior vice president at Finn Partners, working in their Southeast-based consumer practice group and specializing in the automotive and mobility sector.

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