For corporate communicators today one of the most significant impacts of the emergence of social media as an effective channel for business communications is the futility of maintaining the traditional distinction between external and internal communication functions. This is a key theme in a monograph1 produced by the Arthur W Page Society called: Building Belief: A New Model for Achieving Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy.
(For anyone who, like me, hasn’t heard of the Arthur W Page Society, it is an (American) membership organisation for “…senior public relations and corporate communications executives who seek to enrich and strengthen their profession”. Membership is composed of individuals who have distinguished themselves in the field of corporate communications or public relations and they are expected to understand, accept, and support the Page Principles, which I like sufficiently to reproduce them, in full, below – see footnote 2.)
The paper ranges from being reasonably erudite, requiring my sustained concentration to fully understand the propositions it is exploring, to concepts that are much more familiar; for example, their conclusion that “…in a world of radical transparency, there is no longer a sustainable (and comfortably siloed) “in” [internal communication function] walled off from a clearly segmented “out” [external communication function]” (page 32) reaffirms my opening point. It goes on: “..one of the key conclusions from our research is that an organization’s culture (its internally experienced essence) and its brand and reputation (its externally experienced identity) must be integrated. The brand, finally, is an expression of what the people of the company actually are. This, in turn, is the foundation of organizational authenticity. Our New Model is a proposal for how to make that fusion operational.”
The Arthur W Page Society’s “New Model” for corporate communications describes “..two important new dimensions of the chief communication officer’s (CCO’s) role”. These are defined as:
- “The definition and activation of corporate character [wherein] corporate character refers to the enterprise’s unique identity, its differentiating purpose, mission and values. Management of corporate character involves the integration of the organization’s reputation and culture. In an age of unprecedented transparency, “how we are is who we are,” as one CCO interviewed for the Arthur Page study describes it.
- “The building of advocacy at scale. Never have word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer influence been more ubiquitous or powerful. Billions of individuals now have the means to share their experiences, opinions and ideas – and to organize for action – at scale….But arguably the importance of this phenomenon has less to do with social networks and other technologies than with how and why individuals advocate. Simply put, they are motivated to do so when they have genuinely realised the value of their decision to buy from, work for, invest in or otherwise decide in favour of the enterprise. (The converse is also true.)”
The Executive Summary of the monograph concludes that the results of the research into the role of corporate communications requires the CCO’s role to expand to cover all of the following:
- An integrator – working across the C-suite to make the company “think like” and “perform like” its corporate character.
- A systems designer – not only systems of marketing and communications, but of how these relate to the company’s operations and management systems.
- A master of data analytics – to understand customers, employees, investors, citizens and other stakeholders as individuals rather than publics, audiences and segments of populations.
- A publisher and developer – the same tools of information production that are in the hands of the masses are also available to the CCO, who can directly inform, empower and equip targeted individuals.
- A student of behavioural science – to inform the shaping of belief, action, behaviour and advocacy.
- A curator of corporate character – to ensure that the company’s communications and its people remain true to their core identity.
This would represent a significant shift of responsibilities that would require not just a greatly expanded skill set, but also support from the rest of the C- suite for it to be realised. The size of the challenge is fully defined in the monograph but for any CCO considering the impact of social media on the structure and operations of the corporate comms function, this paper is not a bad place to start.
1 A monograph is a scholarly piece of writing on a single topic. For anyone interested, the difference between a monograph and a White Paper is that the latter is “…an authoritative report or guide that helps readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision” (source: Wikipedia), whereas a monograph is less definitive, intended as more of a discussion piece.
2 The Page Principles:
- Tell the truth. Let the public know what’s happening and provide an accurate picture of the company’s character, ideals and practices.
- Prove it with action. Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.
- Listen to the customer. To serve the company well, understand what the public wants and needs. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed about public reaction to company products, policies and practices.
- Manage for tomorrow. Anticipate public reaction and eliminate practices that create difficulties. Generate goodwill.
- Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. Corporate relations is a management function. No corporate strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on the public. The public relations professional is a policymaker capable of handling a wide range of corporate communications activities.
- Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people. The strongest opinions — good or bad — about a company are shaped by the words and deeds of its employees. As a result, every employee — active or retired — is involved with public relations. It is the responsibility of corporate communications to support each employee’s capability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador to customers, friends, shareowners and public officials.
- Remain calm, patient and good-humored. Lay the groundwork for public relations miracles with consistent and reasoned attention to information and contacts. This may be difficult with today’s contentious 24-hour news cycles and endless number of watchdog organizations. But when a crisis arises, remember, cool heads communicate best.