The Ugly Telephone Game and How to Avoid It

A friend of mine tells a story of a time when he and two of his buddies got into a baseball card trade in high school that turned into a super-confusing version of the Telephone Game. The two boys wanted to trade a 1982 Topps Cal Ripken Junior Number 21 card for a Cal Ripken 176 card. However, my friend, who isn’t a baseball fan at all and was mediating this trade in separate conversations, only heard the last name “Ripken”.

Before they knew it, the whole trade went south when the second buddy came to school the next day, not with the collectible 1982 Cal Ripken Junior Number 21 card, but with the infamous Billy Ripken card featuring his “obscenity bat”! (If you haven’ heard the story, Google Billy Ripken obscenity bat. Just be warned…it does contain a pretty salty word.)

This is the kind of thing that happens almost any time people play “The Telephone Game”. One person tells a story to a second person, the second person tells the story to a third, and so on and so on, while the story invariably changes with each retelling. The final time the story is told, it often bears little resemblance to the original.

In today’s world, there is more retelling going on than ever, and the internet and social media have amplified these discussions. That’s why it’s incredibly important to tell the story right the first time, make it as easy to understand as possible, and to publish the story in easy-to-find places where people can read or watch them at any time.


Making the Call: Choose to Communicate
Here’s a sobering fact that many people either don’t realize or don’t want to consider: the absence of information can not only lead to an absence of perception, but to a negative perception.

Clearly communicating the mission and goals of your organization is extremely important in order to solidify your purpose with the public, unify your members, and create a positive impact on the perception of external stakeholders.
It’s inevitable that hurdles or challenges will arise in every project, campaign, or client composition; but a good communications plan and choosing to communicate will take you a long way to overcoming them.


Keep Calling: Be Relentlessly Proactive
Stay ahead of your messaging by keeping at the top of your mind what the public deserves and needs to know about the services you provide. For example, any time a significant change is made at a water plant, whether it be a machinery upgrade or improvements in water treatment, tell the public about it, and tell them why it’s a good thing….and then tell them again.

Alternatively, it is important to be transparent about bad news, and not to be defensive if (and when) a reporter asks for more information about it. Those who are proactive at sharing news, even bad news, are always the most respected and trusted…even if the situation stinks at the time.


Speak Clearly: Be Easy to Understand
Make your message easy to understand. If a message is too long or too complex, those who share the message will try to shorten or simplify it in order to make it more understandable.

Before issuing information, think about your audience. If it is a complex subject, consider testing your message on different types of audiences to gauge how they understand the content.


Call for No Reason: Strengthen Relationships
No matter how prolific social media and high technology become, one thing will always be necessary for success, and that is to maintain strong relationships. If you communicate well and often, you will build the kind of clout that can’t be built only in times of crisis.

Over time, all of this can help you reduce negative or non-existent perceptions, gain general support, and hang up on “The Telephone Game”.