OPINION: Who can CEOs trust?

These days, transparency is the name of the game: to 'manage the message' is to manage reputational decline, argues Edelman's former EMEA chief executive, Robert Phillips.

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2016
Chief executives can't always trust their communications directors, their communications teams or their external PR agencies to do the right thing: that's the startling conclusion from a recent summit of business leaders from many of Europe’s largest multi-national companies.

It reveals a growing tension between CEOs’ instincts and their teams’ ability to 'manage the message' on their behalf - or, in popular language, to spin. Spin, though, is dead. The future of business rests with radical honesty and transparency.

Smart business leaders are embracing transparency. They are often ahead of those who communicate on their behalf: they understand it’s what an organisation does, not what it says, that counts - and that a company may need to change its behaviour before it changes its communications. It’s actions, not words, that resonate. Some communications directors are of course already advising their CEOs this, only to be met with a wall of silence. Agencies, though, appear slower on the uptake.

Either way, comms departments - large or small - need to be re-imagined on this basis.

'Progressive communication' – radical, transformative, democratic – is still in its early stages. It's a logical response to the post-crisis world, accelerated by the rise of social media, disruptive technology and costless communications. The need for reform is most acute in the banking and financial services sectors – but equally in energy and retail, too.

Progressive communications is needed because, as many have argued, 'we can't go on like this'. Consumers are asking more from the companies and brands that serve them – and the companies themselves are being asked to change what they do, as much as what they say.

CEOs are recognizing that transparency demands more than tick-box compliance. While commercial confidentiality has to be maintained, growing citizen and institutional activism, combined with the inherent worry that every organisation, big or small, harbours a potential Edward Snowden, is leading to better corporate actions, even if not always by choice.

Individuals are being similarly empowered: power and influence continues to shift from state to citizen; employer to employee; corporation to consumer. Spin can't stop this and usually only adds to the anger. Old elites – and the hierarchies that protected them – are no longer in control.

But those residual power-bases within organisations - from small businesses to multinational companies - still hinder progress, frustrating chief executives.

Lawyers might maintain that transparency increases risk; ops directors may argue that something obviously remedial is simply not planned; CFOs that it isn’t budgeted. Some - but not all – comms directors suggest transparency is just too open and too honest – as though these are matters of degree. Then there are those who would like heads to remain firmly beneath the parapets and who often find comfort in external consultancies, with their over-complicated message management (small firms are particularly vulnerable to this).

Whatever the scale of the business, not engaging is not an option. Participation is everything.

Progressive business leaders know consumers now see what we all see; that the truth will out anyway; and that any sense of deception will be met with justifiable anger. Instead of building trust, half- or massaged truths will erode trust. Only the truth, however uncomfortable, will suffice. Trust today is harder than ever to earn and faster than ever to lose.

Progress demands honesty and engagement, transparency and accountability. To 'manage the message' is now to manage reputational decline. This is the incontrovertible message business leaders must share with their communications directors, their teams and to those who advise them.

- Robert Phillips is head of chambers at Jericho Chambers and a visiting professor at Cass Business School. His next book 'Trust Me: The Future of Business Is Safe In Our Hands' is published by Unbound in Spring 2014.

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