Few experiences rival global travel for their ability to highlight communication nuances, universal best practices and the occasional faux pas. Never simple or one-dimensional, the subtleties of every country’s unique cultural traditions and biases underlying local communication norms are fueled by riveting and often complex stories. Few tales are more gripping than the national narrative of Hungary, and for that reason, I was drawn to spend the very first month of KCI’s operations living and working in Budapest.
My personal attraction to Hungary runs deep. Perpetually stunned that it actually happened—I have a visceral attraction to all things World War II. Like a car crash I just can’t look away from, my fascination is lifelong, and invariably draws me to every biopic, documentary, movie and historic development on the topic either visible to me or within earshot. A central character in World War II, Budapest happens to be a breathtakingly beautiful Hungarian city that owns a horrendously dark piece of that 20th century past.
A Nazi party ally and member of the Axis powers complicit in advancing the Holocaust—Hungary was unquestionably on the wrong side of history. The country’s leadership attempted in vain to align themselves with the Allied forces in 1944—only after it was clear they were on the losing side of the war. Following the discovery of that betrayal by Nazi Germany, was the country’s swift round-up and annihilation of roughly 600,000 Hungarian Jews in a six-week period. The tragic fate of those victims rivaled one another in levels of atrocity. Upwards of 20,000 were shot on the banks of the Danube—their bodies disposed of in the River, with droves loaded in trains bound for Auschwitz, and the remaining 50,000 ordered to march barefoot in the snow more than 100 miles toward that same fatal end in Austria.
While the story of Hungary’s explicit role in World War II is paralyzing—what’s most riveting is the country’s modern-day narrative of that role, and the timeless, universal communication lesson it represents. In 2014, the Hungarian government erected a bronze statute entitled The German Occupation Memorial. Prominently located in Szabadság Square in the city center, the monument features the Archangel Gabriel—representing the power of the Hungarian state and an “innocent Hungary,” directly beneath a predatory bronze eagle—depicting Nazi Germany. With the year 1944 inscribed on one of the eagle’s outstretched talons, the Memorial portrays Hungary as a victim of invasion—not the complicit partner of the Nazi campaign that history long ago established it was.
What this modern-day narrative has inspired within Hungary is profound. Domestically, it has morphed into an intensified distrust of government in the post-Iron Curtain era, with evaporating Hungarian citizen faith in the claims of all public officials. Highlighting this are monument protests that continue to this day, and a graphic public counter-memorial erected by Hungarian residents. Overshadowing the monument itself with the photographic images, stories and personal belongings of massacred Holocaust victims – it serves as a reminder of the well documented twentieth century Hungarian-Nazi alliance.
While it was conveyed in a number of different ways based on demographic, the candid conversations I had during my travels with a broad swath of native Hungarians revealed an invariable level of wariness concerning their government. Admittedly still shell-shocked from an age of communist and fascist-fueled surveillance and population control measures that just ended in 1989, those born before 1960 shook their heads in acknowledgement, hesitant to openly share their opinions, saying only “it’s really something.” The Gen X conversations I engaged in guided me away from government-operated museums based on “false content,” and the Millennials I spoke with revealed zero faith in local media, admitting to almost exclusive news consumption from international media outlets online.
This communication lesson translates well beyond the conspicuous reframing of horrifying national histories. It’s universal. From brand promises that fall just shy of delivering, to subtle contradictions in leadership messaging over time, and germane omissions in partnership dialogues—when the foundation of trust is compromised, the impact is game-changing. Where a government may ultimately lose its ability to mobilize support and wield meaningful influence on a national scale, far less egregious communication inconsistencies can rapidly dilute brand equity, tarnish professional reputations, erode confidence in leadership, and deteriorate personal relationships. From omissions and partial truths to overt contradictions and the softening of hard edges in an effort to save face – narrative missteps can cause irreparable damage. Words matter. When trust is compromised, everything you have to say falls on deaf ears.
Communication integrity is fundamental in every scenario that requires the full confidence of an audience—from investors and prospective partners in your business, to brand advocates reliant on your claims to confidently champion your cause, and the professional talent under your roof pondering their professional options. Does your communique ring true for your key audiences or suffer from subtle contradictions? Might high employee turnover or sluggish audience engagement rates with your brand signal the need for a narrative makeover? Reach out below - I’d love to help! Until next time, Namaste. -Noelle