Climate change. Misogyny, inequality and violence against women. Racism. Identity politics. Culture wars. Wokeness. Free speech. It’s a challenging time in the evolution of communications. Communicators are grappling with a tide of issues that are hugely emotive, sensitive and where the public expect the brands they love to have a point of view. Our industry has an often-deserved reputation for spinning nice gossamer threads of PR over fundamentally detrimental corporate behaviour. Now is our time to change that once and for all.
The best communications professionals have long tried to be a force for good rather than smokescreens for corporate misbehaviour. With the rise of sustainability, purpose and social justice as business issues, communicators have a real opportunity to ensure a positive contribution not just ‘less of a negative’. What skills do we need for this new era?
Be an advocate: Advocate for change and influence the decisions your company makes about how it does business – do this before you communicate anything. Your job now goes way beyond communications. Think beyond reputation into the broadest possible benefit for the business – see this as an opportunity not just risk management. Be prepared to engage every day with the commercial business to ensure decisions are made in line with purpose.
Be an activist: Activate change yourself inside and outside your organisation. Find the right partnerships to make change happen. Be bold, and live the change you want to make. And be absolutely transparent about how you are driving that change and where you need to do more.
Be an active listener: Listening is more important than ever, and for some communicators that’s not entirely a natural reflex. We like talking. We do a lot of monitoring – not the same as listening. It’s not just about knowing what your consumers, your stakeholders, your employees care about and what they expect from you. It’s about empathising and engaging with their viewpoint. Think of yourself as the Chief Engagement Officer of your company.
Be brave: You must be comfortable with discomfort to drive change. You will need to have conversations on difficult, sensitive topics, which are evolving fast and where people have strongly held opinions and highly invested emotions. Be frank and fair and respect the opinion of everyone involved in the conversation, even if you don’t agree with it. Recognise that a plurality of views is a mark of a healthy society and heated debate is a necessary part of progress.
Say it how it is, and say sorry: Don’t be defensive. The scale of the challenges ahead are immense and no one company can do it all. Transparency about your particular issues is part of creating belief in your willingness to address them.
Be prepared to say sorry when you get it wrong. The era of the non-apology is hugely damaging to reputation and along with fake news is driving a steady erosion of values in public life and is destroying consumer trust.
Fight purpose washing tooth and nail: The marketing professor Mark Ritson described purpose as ‘the current concept du jour of every trendy, helium-filled marketer in the country.’ Without doubt there are marketers guilty of jumping on the purpose bandwagon as a means to sell more stuff, rather than as a genuine commitment to make change. Purpose washing is the natural descendant of green-washing and vastly underestimates the intelligence and real concern of consumers about these issues, and the level of scrutiny that companies now face.
Those purpose-washing brands compromise those businesses that ARE genuinely invested in making a positive contribution to the world. ESGP efforts are at risk of being seen as a reputational shield instead of a system change. Don’t be one of the purpose-washers.
The good news….
I really believe that having a clear, embedded purpose that connects you to the world makes life easier as a communicator, because it will guide your position on everything. You have your North Star. You know why you exist, and what you want to achieve. Follow that purpose in everything you do and everything you say.