Once upon a time we could believe in political leaders. We may not have agreed with them, or even liked them, but we trusted they were working with the country’s best interests at heart. Once upon a time we trusted those people who looked after our money: the bankers and our employers that held the keys to our pensions and security in our old age. The past 10 years of global financial uncertainty, the collapse of reliable household names, and a political landscape where everyone looks as though they are auditioning for a role in the latest Shakespearean production of Julius Caesar has put a huge question mark over our blind faith.
My inbuilt optimism compels me to hope that there are still honourable men and women, but most of us are not sure any more. Career appears to come before duty, those who shout the loudest seem to get the most votes – or clients. This cannot be sustained. Just as we are looking for political leaders who have the level-headedness to take us through the next few years and our separation from Europe, we are looking for financial experts to guide us through the maelstrom, delivering something more than just puffery and rote PR.
So, what does this mean for businesses and individuals that want to stand out against the backdrop of disappointment, disillusionment and wariness? I think the answer lies in authenticity. As Polonius says to Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
What do you stand for?
“Corporate values” are such common buzzwords at the moment they mean almost nothing. And yet they also mean everything. The phrase means standing for something, not trying to appeal to everyone. Identifying our own personal values and trying to live by them will steer us through life-changing events.
From a reputational point of view, they act as a shining beacon to draw those who identify with those values. To some extent, it doesn’t matter what you stand for. It could be globalism and international business. It could be a solid, traditional way of working, or it could just as easily be about partnership and collaboration with your clients rather than merely serving them.
Both businesses and people evolve, and as a result corporate values will also change
As an individual, identifying your values can take anything from a thoughtful half an hour with a notebook and pen, pondering what issues matter most to you, and which you will not concede, to a few sessions with a professional. Take heed, however, as you may uncover more than you bargained for, as some of my clients have found when they realised they were working with organisations that actually held opposing values to their own.
As a business, distilling values is a longer process. Identifying who you want to work with and what aspects of your company culture lie deep within the people that make up your business takes time. This is not a pure PR exercise, however. There is solid business sense beneath.
Aligning your message
Taking stock of everything from company culture to promotional material in the light of those values is the next step. This is where you need the courage of your convictions. I’ve met businesses and individuals who are so concerned about putting out information that can be misconstrued or misused that they fall into analysis paralysis and nothing happens. This is a mistake but one that holding tight to your values can prevent.
Your message should not only exist within PR, marketing and advertising activity and materials, but should also be conveyed throughout the organisation. Everyone should know what you stand for. You can do this via company intranet, talks and workshops or inspiring notes on the back of toilet cubicle doors, but again, the mode should be consistent with your message.
Choosing what you stand for isn’t set in stone. Both businesses and people evolve, and as a result corporate values will also change. If the company is in a period of rapid growth this is even more likely to happen. This is totally fine. You are not committing yourself for a lifetime here. Indeed, if you were, everyone would get bored.
A recent study by SimilarWeb concluded that people are spending less time on their social media apps than previously. Nevertheless, as businesses and individuals we often feel pressured to be seen on every platform. I love seeing my clients’ faces as I tell them this just isn’t necessary. Even if you have a whole department dedicated to PR and marketing, it’s a momentous task to do every channel well.
Instead, be choosy. Go back to your values and the people with whom you are connecting. Think about what matters to them. A rule of thumb I tend to use is that people like reading about other people. Yes, the financial analysis and news updates are vital for building credibility, but a human face will bring connection. Each of the CEOs, business owners and executives that I work with will do this in their own way, but knowing they can concentrate on a small number of platforms and build a body of excellence there frees them to bring vision and inspiration to building their profile.
The company you keep
We’ve long known that working with charities is a win-win solution for both charity and organisation (or individual). But organisations can go way beyond encouraging participants in the annual fun run or setting aside some space for a charity coffee morning. I’ve worked with some who give their staff paid time off to work with charities, or bring some element of social responsibility into their learning and development. Not only does this build up deep links with the local community, but can also be seen as a form of staff training, fantastic PR and, what I feel is most important, builds a company culture of kindness, something that money cannot buy. Reputation-wise, I can’t think of anything that will serve you better.
There have been a lot of academic studies around the subject of ethical leadership, many of which trace the link between ethical leadership and a positive, harmonious and inspired work culture. Ethical leadership has been identified by Brown and Trevino (2005) as that which has a legitimate and credible role model as a leader who not only explicitly emphasises the importance of ethics but also reinforces ethical behaviour and considers the ethical consequences of any decisions.
If we don’t adopt this new, more expansive, values-driven way of working and living, it’s possible we may get left behind, hanging on to a reputation from a bygone age
An additional but important point is they also discipline those that do not work by these standards of ethical behaviour. Studies have pointed to the positive correlation between ethical leadership and employees’ commitment, work engagement, psychological ownership, safety consciousness and conscientiousness. It is a rousing body of research and one that provokes me to wonder if employees respond so positively to this type of leadership, then why not clients, contractors, suppliers and anyone else we come into contact with? The trickledown effect could be huge.
So, how to create an ethically-led organisation? It’s not done overnight, but here are some of the key points:
1. Create cultural expectations – clear standards that everyone upholds and can be seen to be upholding by clients and connections too;
2. Management are doubly aware that they are role models for everyone’s eyes and to behave accordingly;
3. Offering thoughtful rewards for the right behaviour and consequences for the
4. Continuous education, support and feedback. Creating a buy-in is vital and it is important to help everyone going through the process understand that this is not just a superficial PR exercise. Please note, I am not talking about one lone leader paving the way here, unless of course that’s appropriate in your situation. I am talking about a top-down cultural change.
Storytelling or story making?
Another buzzword is “storytelling”. Each of us apparently has a story to tell, which savvy marketers are encouraging us to use to raise our own or our company’s profile. First, and from a purely practical PR point, while everyone has a story in them, not everyone has a compelling story. Frankly, it is uncomfortable listening to someone’s tale and having to fight to stay awake. If you’ve got a story to tell, it had better be good. If it seems generic and could be any other business’s story, or any other person’s, then reconsider.
If you don’t have an enthralling story, my preferred alternative is the vision – and we’re back to those values again. Where are those values going to take the company? How will they determine how you work with clients? What kind of leadership will you offer your clients in the light of your values and the political and financial uncertainty ahead?
The tide is turning
Things are changing and some of the biggest names on the planet are now committing themselves to this new way of working. But as Bill Gates has pointed out, the world needs creative capitalism, not just philanthropy. Authenticity, transparency, ethical leadership and careful use of our resources are some of the hallmarks of creative capitalism. These are values for which the newer generations of Millennials and Centennials are clamouring. If we don’t adopt this new, more expansive, values-driven way of working and living, it’s possible we may get left behind, hanging on to a reputation from a bygone age.
Career coach and profile consultant Paula Gardner, MABP, of Scarlet Thinking works with CEOs, business owners and high-flying professionals on raising profile and career reinvention.