This article, by Justin Baiocchi, was originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 28 February 2015.
One of the tricks which every parent soon learns is the art of distraction. It works wonders with small children: “No Jack, you can’t have another bucket of ice cream; here, play with mummy’s iPhone instead” or “No Kate, give me back the chainsaw; here, play with mummy’s reading glasses instead”. Of course the distraction technique has been around forever and it’s not just parents who make use of it, politicians love it too: “No, we can’t do anything about the state of the economy, but here, let’s invade this small peaceful nation next door instead”. Or, “No, we can’t fix the health system, but here, let’s host the Olympic Games instead.” They must think we’re all just a bunch of two year-olds, unable to focus on more than one topic at a time (the really scary thing is that it obviously works or it wouldn’t be used as often as it is).
As you would expect, the distraction technique exists within the finance industry too. Companies like to present their profit results before taking into account the impact of one-off events. As in, “We had a great year; profits grew by 20%!” It sounds wonderful, until you realise that there was also a ‘one-off’ $2 billion write-down of assets, which would have caused profits to fall by 100%. But because it’s a one-off, it doesn’t count (watch where companies focus on ‘underlying’ profitability – that’s distraction in action). Invariably the company seems to have ‘one-off’ events like this occurring every year, which make you question just how rare this type of event really is. The other distraction technique is to focus on an unrelated achievement. The one most companies opt for is in occupational health and safety (OH&S). It’s not to underplay the importance of safety at work, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read a company’s annual report which begins with a two-page spread trumpeting the fact that there were zero deaths at the workplace that year, and after only that comes the admission that management blew any potential profits on bottles of 1959 Grange and Mont Blanc pens. To make it worse, the business in question would be an accounting or law firm, where the most serious workplace injury is likely to be a nasty paper-cut. Distraction in action.
In a way, the distraction technique is just a small part of the larger world of spin. If you have a tough message to sell, don’t tell the truth, just put a favourable spin on it. After all, we live in a world where unwanted employees are ‘invited to be successful somewhere else’; where broken promises are simply ‘recalibrating expectations’; and where nobody ever fails, it’s just a case of ‘deferred success’.