I wanted to mention this terrific conference I went to last week. It was hosted by PRWeek and featured a stimulating array of speakers. Suzie Welch, author and journalist, spoke about how hard it is for companies to get themselves into the “conversation.” She was thinking back to her days as editor of Harvard Business Review and the many times CCOs would call with what they thought was an explosive idea: “If you’re coming in, trying to be a thought or idea leader, and you don’t have the results to back it up, you’re just beating against the wind. And it backfires later, because when you actually have something to talk about, you already have the stink on you from having tried to sell yourself too soon.” PRWeek has more on her talk.
She mentioned that timing matters, having something uniquely new (Amazon’s drone shipments), knowing how to exit the conversation if in crisis, authenticity and “likeability.” Suzie was incredibly likeable herself and appeared very approachable and “real.” Seems odd that she is so accomplished but goes by what I presume is her grade-school name, Suzie. When it comes to thought leadership, she also reminded the crowd of mostly senior pr professionals how critical it was to have the courage to tell your CEO when their breakthrough idea might just not be ready for prime time. After all, as Suzie said, there are very few new ideas in the business today. I think we’d all agree. Of course, she brought up the topic of CEO celebrity. She was right in saying that no CEO starts out saying they want to be a CEO celebrity. It just happens because everyone wants to know about them. Richard Branson was mentioned as a good example of an individual who became a celeb CEO in service of his brand, Virgin.
Dan Roth, executive editor of LinkedIn, gave some fascinating examples on how CEOs were posting on LinkedIn’s influential Influencer Program and how they eventually find their authentic, human voice after some false starts. He used Prime Minister David Cameron as an example of a leader who over time went from third person to first person in his posts. Roth also mentioned how some CEOs were big on asking for feedback when they submitted their posts. His comment reminded me of a CEO who continually asks anyone within earshot how his company was doing in the marketplace. What was the word on the street? It was a terrific signal that he was interested in hearing as much as talking. Roth ended his talk with some fine advice about the Influencer program — CEOs should realize that they “are not creating content, they are creating conversation.” We all sometimes focus too much on content and getting our corporate message across and not enough on establishing arelationship or demonstrating how human we might actually be.
Although everyone uses the word “authentic” today, I have to make a case for “likeability,” to use Suzie Welch’s word. For most companies and leaders, working on likeability would go a long way in making their companies great places to work. It’s a good word for reputation-building.
I attended the Council of PR Firms Critical Issues Forum a week or so again. I always enjoy attending because I learn something that sticks with me. The topic was all about Content Frenzy which certainly resonated with the attendees. The panels were stimulating and overall, an A+ event for those of us in this industry who are watching what is content change before our eyes. Of course, I have to tie everything back to my main interest in reputation, so here goes:
1. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis said that “messages are dead.” He said that we should be in the relationship business and worry less about messaging. Makes sense to me if you are building reputation. Communicating that want to be perceived as the most innovative company, the most admired company, the best place to work, the most global, etc. does not stick for long in people’s minds as much as creating the feeling that a company cares about you as a customer, wants to listen to what you have to say and works hard to retain your business.
2. News Corps’ Strategy VP Raju Narisetti said that companies are not competing for audiences but for our time. That’s the honest truth. Companies have to recognize that there are so many hours in the day and everyone is overextended and bombarded with messages. Good storytelling is the answer and knowing how to do it well is an art as well as a science. Six second Vine videos might just do the trick. He also said that native advertising was a faustian pact that could cause serious credibility problems (ouch!) and damage reputation (ouch!).
3. Harvard Business Review’s editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius said something that certainly perked up my ears. He said that everyone today is a thought leader. He is right. Everyone provides content. I consider myself a thought leader and it did not feel good to hear that my competitors are everywhere. I have been learning too that everyone is a reputation management expert. I might have to figure out something else to do. Reputation-wise, companies and CEOs with a thought or two of their own are competing with everyone else’s content storms. Everyone is overwhelmed with a glut of content, so said Amy Webb of webbmedia. She is someone worth following.
4. Small data is more relevant than big data. I dont know who said it but it is profound. I agree. We are so focused on the very big data, that we are missing the more relevant, localized, individualistic insights that can break through our universal content overload. When it comes to reputation, maybe we should be focusing on the small conversations and not the “most popular” ones. We might learn alot more by following one person over time than following an entire army of tweets and posts. Maybe, also, it is the smaller and more incremental reputation enhancement steps that matter than the large, broad big efforts that companies tend to embark on and hammer us with. I am not sure but I know it is true when it comes to reputation recovery.
Tomorrow is Monday…have a good week!
I was delighted to learn yesterday that The Holmes Report included me in its list of 25 Top PR Innovators. This new listing, the In2 Innovator 25, calls attention to the importance of innovation and ideas in the public relations field. The 25 of us were honored for breaking boundaries, challenging the industry and pushing PR onto the wider stage that it so deserves. Not bad.
One of the questions Holmes asked in a mini-survey of the Innovators was “Who most influences a brand’s PR/marketing innovations?” The top influences were CMO, receiving 10 votes, and CEO, which received 6 votes. I answered CEO. In my world, the CEO sets the guardrails for and shapes the corporate culture that allows ideas and experimentation to ferment and that also allows fear of failure to fade away. Without such a culture, imagination and risk-taking would never have enough air to breath so as to grow and flourish.
During my career I have benefited from just such an expanse of breathing space. My former agency CEO Chris Komisarjevsky encouraged me to ideate when I began one of my first research projects on CEO reputation. Today at Weber Shandwick, I have had the full support and encouragement of our CEO, Andy Polansky. Without Andy’s support, without the amazingly collaborative culture that he has fostered, I would have found it nearly impossible to think divergently and follow my instincts. I am fortunate and grateful that my boss and my colleagues have created an accepting, nurturing environment for ideas. My thanks to you all.
My good friend Bob Eccles, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, wrote an article (The Performance Frontier) that just appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Here is a PDF. I’ve been extremely interested in his work on integrated reporting for awhile now. What is integrated reporting? Essentially it is One Report that combines financial and non-financial information interactively into one document. A good example of a company that has done this is Natura. Although integrated reporting is voluntary today, it is required of all companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. But integrated reporting is much more than an online CSR showcase. When it is done right, it is an authentic and innovative two way conversation where a company convenes its stakeholders to discuss its progress meeting its financial and nonfinancial goals. For example, Natura does this through Natura Conecta where the public is invited to have a discussion on environmental and social issues related to the company. It is a living exchange, not a static one that is one-way and more push than pull.
Bob’s article has an interesting slant which he points out in the introductory sentence . . .”But a mishmash of sustainability tactics does not add up to a sustainable strategy.” He argues, along with his co-author George Serafeim also at Harvard Business School, that we need a solid framework for simultaneously boosting financial performance as well as doing good. Tactics alone won’t do the trick. They provide a model for identifying the most environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors that drive shareholder value so that both financial and ESG performance are enhanced, not just one. A company that focuses on sustainability without paying attention to the financial costs is not going to have a genuine sustainability strategy that meets everyone’s interests. Similarly, a company that focuses solely on financial performance to the exclusion of good ESG performance will lose out as well in terms of public opinion and support. A major component of reaching this perfect balance, according to them, is by identifying major innovations in products, processess and business models that achieve these improvements and accomplishes superior financial and sustainability performance. A good example is the one with Natura mentioned above. They also cite innovative business models from Dow and Hong Kong-based CLP Group. And then, of course, Bob argues that these activities are ideally communicated through integrated reporting.
What fired me up was the SASB (Sustainability Accouting Standards Board) Materiality Maps that have been created for 88 industries in 10 sectors. Each industry has its own map that prioritizes 43 ESG issues and ranks them in terms of materiality. Not all the maps are complete but take a good look at this one for the health care sector. It shows which ESG factors impact financial performance so that a company knows what to prioritize. It’s a great contribution to understanding ESG factors as well as what drives strong corporate reputation. Don’t miss it.
And congrats to Bob and George for raising an important question about how to better balance financial costs and sustainability costs so that they complement one another instead of taking away.
As I mentioned, I am traveling in Asia to talk about social CEOs and generally spread the good word about our thought leadership and Weber Shandwick. It is so terribly interesting to present our research and learn what people have to say and listen to the kinds of questions they ask. Today in Shanghai someone asked me what type of emotional commitment a CEO has to make to become a social CEO. What a great question! It definitely takes an emotional commitment. Not only does a CEO have to commit time and resources but there is a genuine personal commitment as that goes hand in hand with being social. You are putting yourself on the line as well as your ego. It also takes courage. In our new upcoming research which we have not released yet, executives are quite aware that being a social CEO takes courage. It is not for the faint-hearted. However, one CEO reminded me that the CEO job is all about risk anyhow. True.
In addition, at a presentation yesterday in Beijing, someone mentioned that even if you cannot get your CEO to be social (meaning using social media in some shape or form), CEOs need to commit to “the intrinsic value of sociability.” He rightly said that sociability (whether online or not) should not be ignored in this business environment. It can make a significant difference. Smart advice.
I am starting to wonder if thought leadership is morphing into an entirely new terminology in this digital age — content provider. Lately it seems that people who consider themselves thought leaders, like myself perhaps, are now being confused with content providers. This latter term seems to carry even greater cache because it falls into the digital realm. I was recently mentioning this dichotomy to a friend at Forbes who writes a column on thought leadership and we came to the conclusion that anyone can be deemed a content provider but not everyone can be called a thought leader. Most people on Twitter or Facebook provide content of sorts but it is not always unique or new or truly awe-inspiring. Many times it is a rehash of what is in the news. Here is my definition of thought leadership from my first book.
“Thought leadership encompasses the development of new ideas – ideas that keep a company at the forefront of change. It can transcend sectors and geographic borders. What is perhaps most significant about thought leadership is that it distinguishes and differentiates a company from its competitors. Thought leadership often breaks with business or industry convention, astonishes if not startles. Thought leadership reflects on the company and builds reputation.”
There seems to be a continuum where simple chatter is at one pole of the continuum and true thought leadership at the other end. I would not pretend to know who would be those “genius” thought leaders but Malcolm Gladwell came to mind easily and he might be placed somewhere in the middle of original and genius. Those true thought leaders come up with thoughts that are so groundbreaking that everyone goes AHHHHHH.
chatter—>content provider—>thought leader—>original—>genius
It is hard to say what this all adds up to but the reputation of thought leadership as well as content provider needs better definition. Just providing content (even if it is more than what is contained in a press release) is different than providing new thinking that leads people to think twice or act differently or even possibly change lives. Something to ponder.