A New Model for Ethics Communication

Written by Jon Iwata and Roger Bolton

Arthur Page, who led communications for AT&T in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, would scarcely recognize the environment for our profession today.  Clearly, technology — from iPads and smart phones to social networking and the Internet itself — would be alien.  More important, Page would not recognize the dynamics of how people communicate with each other and with businesses, formulate opinion, organize for action and ultimately make decisions.

What he certainly would recognize is the continuing relevance of his eponymous Principles, on which the Arthur W. Page Society was founded.  They are enduring.  Tell the truth, prove it with action, realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people – these precepts will be as relevant decades from now as they were 90 years ago.

Because the Page Society lives at the intersection of what endures and what changes in corporate communications, we have been exploring the changing role of the chief communications officer in light of a radical transformation of the business environment.  The Authentic Enterprise, published in 2007, observed that globalization, the digital networking revolution and the rise of new stakeholders were creating threats to the ability of enterprises to protect and advance brand and reputation.

But these trends also provided opportunities for enlightened enterprises to build deeper and more meaningful relationships with stakeholders.  In order to seize those opportunities, the report recommended that chief communications officers assert leadership in establishing authenticity.

Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy, released in March 2012, took this from the realm of theory into what it means in practice. This report describes an emerging model for action among leading CCOs as they explore how they can help their companies thrive in an era of radical transparency.

Why a new model?  Models matter. They influence the work we and our teams do every day.

If they’re good, they also persist – and some models have been around for a long time. The so-called marketing funnel was developed by St. Elmo Lewis in 1898. We often still start communications programs and campaigns by generating awareness – the first stage of the funnel.  Edward Bernays pioneered the concept of influencing the influencers in the 1920s, and we still do that.  Neil McElroy of P&G invented value propositions for population segments in the 1930s, and we’re still segmenting audiences.

These principles remain valid and useful.  But they are also inadequate for the world in which we work today.  No longer is mass communications the only way to reach people.  No longer do an influential few control the world’s communications channels.

Instead, we are living through profound changes in the way businesses and people interact.  In recognition of these changes, CCOs have begun to adopt practices that can be grouped into two categories.

This first is corporate character.

By exploring and defining a combination of beliefs, values, mission and purpose, an enterprise can shape a distinctive corporate character.  Ethics is essential to the organization’s core – but this notion of character goes beyond ethics.  It is about an essential identity that shapes everything about the organization – its strategy, its business model, its investments and the way it serves all of its key constituencies, from customers and employees to investors and communities.  The company’s character enables it to create a unique and differentiating experience to all who interact with it.

Defining corporate character is hard – but it is only the beginning.  Even more challenging is activating character across the enterprise.  The New Model suggests a simple frame that can guide this difficult and complex work – to ensure that our companies and institutions look like, sound like, think like and perform like our stated corporate character.  This, in turn, suggests an emerging role for the CCO as a catalyst for collaboration across the C-suite.

Once corporate character is defined and activated, we can move to the second part of the model – authentic advocacy.

This work involves engagement with stakeholders by forging shared belief, spurring action, developing confidence and inspiring advocacy at scale.  The goal is not merely to change the opinion and perceptions of individuals, but to spur them to act and to advocate.

CCOs have long appreciated the importance of peer-to-peer and word-of-mouth advocacy.  Today, the advent of social media has significantly amplified the power of this form of influence.  So, while the “few” will always influence “the many,” we are now in a world where the many influence many more.

Authentic advocacy occurs when individuals have realized the value of their decision to buy from, work for, invest in or otherwise decide in favor of a company or institution. Unlocking the power of advocacy at scale, therefore, begins with understanding how people make decisions. The New Model draws on behavioral science to understand what causes an individual to believe – not what the company says in its messaging, but something deeper about the world. It explores what prompts someone to act on a belief, what generates the confidence to adopt ongoing behaviors and, ultimately, what leads someone to become an active, self-motivated advocate.

This work will require new skills and expertise of the organizational communicator.  The CCO must now be an organizational integrator, a systems designer, a master of data analytics, a publisher and developer, a student of behavioral science. And all of it must be in the service of a deeper role – being a curator of corporate character.

What seemed predictive and hypothetical when Building Belief was written and published in March had come to seem descriptive by the summer and fall – not least because the 2012 U.S. elections served as such a powerful case study of many of the New Model’s propositions. Page members are already adopting New Model principles and reaching out to their C-suite peers to make it central to the way the company does business. They are finding that it fundamentally changes the way they think about building value for their enterprises.

This is a time of rapid and profound transformation for enterprises – and CCOs can help their organizations thrive in this turbulent environment.  But we will do so only if we transform ourselves and our capabilities – working together, exploring ideas, sharing best practices and inventing the future.