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10 Communications Lessons That You Can Learn From Harry Potter

As an executive communications coach, I can’t help but think about Harry Potter in terms of my work. The media relations lessons that Harry has taught me include telling the truth, confronting crisis, having a plan and respecting the media.

The final film in the blockbuster Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” opened in U.S. theaters on July 15. I must admit some sadness as the saga drew to a close.

From the book series’ birth 14 years ago, my family and I were enchanted with the protagonist Harry, his friends and enemies, and their remarkable adventures. My kids were 12 and 10 back then, and have grown into young adulthood following the unfolding dramas at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and beyond.

We shared author J.K. Rowling’s books, went to the movies, bought the DVDs and impatiently awaited the next installments in the film series. Seeing the end in sight leaves me a little melancholy, though we’re sure to re-read the books and re-watch the movies as time goes by.

As an executive communications coach, I can’t help but think about Harry Potter in terms of my work. Here are the 10 lessons that Harry has taught me:

1. Tell the truth. This never failed Harry. Ignore this lesson and you will almost always pay. Recent examples that stand out:

  • Former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY), was partially disgraced and ruined by sending salacious text messages to a variety of women,but mostly because he lied to cover it up.
  • Former Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel, a great leader and role model for his players, resigned because he lied about what were — at least in my view — fairly tame transgressions.
  • Former baseball player Roger Clemens—arguably one of the greatest pitchers ever —went on trial in July not for using steroids, but for allegedly lying to Congress about it. (On July 14, a judge declared a mistrial.)

How different would these outcomes have been if these people had told the truth regardless of the consequences, as Harry did in“The Order of the Phoenix” when he was forced to scratch “I must not tell lies” on the back of his hand for sticking to his story about Voldemort’s return?

2. Confront the crisis.When difficulties arise, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can wish them away. Throughout the seven-part series, Harry confronts challenges, obstacles and enemies when it would have been easier to duck, surrender or not show up at all. In the first book, “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” Harry, though terrified, readily admits to the imposing Hagrid that he is Harry Potter, not his cowardly cousin Dudley Dursley — confronting the perceived threat, rather than dodging it. In a business crisis, being “unavailable for comment” won’t make the story or the damage that it inflicts go away; it will just encourage opponents to fill in the blanks and motivate reporters to dig deeper.

3. Have a plan. In the film,“Deathly Hallows Part 1,” Harry’s lack of a plan for finding the remaining horcruxes drives Ron away and drives Hermione to despair. It’s only when Harry and Hermione plan a trip to Godric’s Hollow that the mission gets back on track. In corporate communications, having a crisis plan is an absolute must for any organization hoping to survive. Practicing that plan at least annually is even more important.

4. Build the skills. Barred from learning defensive spells in their classrooms, Harry and his fellow students form “The Order of the Phoenix” (in the book and film by the same name) to learn defense against the dark arts. At the story’s end, the students — including seemingly unlikely combatants Ginny, Luna and Neville — use these skills to overcome the Death Eaters. In a corporate setting, building executives’ communications skills — their ability to deliver presentations, conduct media interviews and communicate with their subordinates, as well as other skills — can help people achieve even greater success.

5. Know your stuff. There isn’t a substitute for having the right knowledge at the right time. In “The Goblet of Fire,” Neville knows that you can eat Gillyweed to grow gills, enabling Harry to save Hermione and Ron and advance in the Triwizards Tournament. In a corporate crisis, it is critical to have command of all the facts. Become as familiar as you can with everything, and make sure that you have people at your side who are knowledgeable in the areas beyond or outside your expertise,and who are trained and effective communicators.

6. Use the tools. Don’t ignore new technologies or techniques because they are unfamiliar or seem trivial. In the book “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” Hermione uses a Time-Turner — a device capable of time travel — to take more classes than time would normally permit. In the end, however, the tool proved to be pivotal in rescuing Buckbeak and saving Sirius Black. Similarly, popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube can be powerful weapons for and against your cause. If they’re not in your arsenal, then they should be.

7. Speak the language. Clear communication is always the responsibility of the speaker, not the listener. Effective communicators know that this means using language that their audiences understand. Follow Harry’s example when he speaks Parseltongue in all seven of the adventures: If you address your audience in a language that they don’t understand — like the industry jargon you use every day — then they’ll tune out your message.

8. Remember body language. In “The Prisoner of Azkaban,”Harry had to use his body language — in the form of a deep and respectful bow — to approach the Hippogriff Buckbeak, who later defended him from Lupin and Snape, and joined in the Battle of Hogwarts. In any face-to-face dialogue, the body language of both the speaker and the listener plays a pivotal role in communication. Learn the roles for specific situations and you’ll increase your effectiveness.

9. Allies are critical. Harry needed friends to succeed. Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Sirius and a host of other supporters helped him navigate virtually every calamity. The lesson for all of us: Forge alliances with industry experts, non-profit organizations, reporters and others, before a communications crisis occurs so that they can help when trouble arises.

10. Respect the media. While some real life reporters may resemble The Daily Prophet’s Rita Skeeter — using her Quick Quotes Quill to record sensational, inaccurate, interviews — most news outlets are responsible and interested in accuracy. Treat them fairly and with respect. They may do the same for you when it matters most.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Public Relations Tactics and is an edited version of a blog post that first appeared on on July 6.

Jeff Jackson is an executive communications coach and co-owner of Haig/Jackson Communications. He and his business partner, Barbara Haig, love helping business people communicate more effectively.

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