Revealing the human side of corporations

When Mitt Romney told an audience member at the Iowa State Fair last year that "Corporations are people, my friend," he clearly had no idea that his comment would set off a maelstrom of criticism that he is "out of touch," a "clueless rich man," and an "elitist."

When Mitt Romney told an audience member at the Iowa State Fair last year that “Corporations are people, my friend,” he clearly had no idea that his comment would set off a maelstrom of criticism that he is “out of touch,” a “clueless rich man,” and an “elitist.”

As a former businessman, Romney looks at companies and sees the men and women who go to work every day and make their organizations function, from the shop floor up to the executive suite.

Jack and Suzy Welch defended this perspective in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, arguing that corporations must be people because “What else would they be? Buildings don't hire people. Buildings don't design cars that run on electricity or discover DNA-based drug therapies that target cancer cells.”

And yet, only a small portion of Americans – 25%, according to a survey from the Center for American Progress – see it that way. While the Occupy Wall Street movement is no longer grabbing headlines, anti-corporate sentiment continues to run high, with more people associating companies with greed, corruption, and gangsterism than with family, friends, and neighbors. What a grand failure that they don't see companies as the people that make them what they are. 

The public's misperception is a black mark for the field of PR. Communications, done right, can help people understand the leaders who run companies, the hopes and aspirations of the employees who go to work each day, and the creativity and innovation that sets great companies apart and enables them to grow, add jobs, and offer exciting products to the market. If we, as communicators, can uncover and share stories that provide insight, resonate with people and engage them in conversation, we can show them the human side of corporations. To do this right, there are a few critical points to keep in mind:

  • People are drawn to personalities and want to know leaders as people. There is a whole gaggle of advisors and consultants who line up to tell CEOs what not to say. Once you get past the naysayers, there is plenty of advice on what CEOs should say and where they should say it, to the point where all meaning and individual expression are often wrenched out of CEO comments. But what people remember, what intrigues them, what generates a positive and empathetic response are the personal comments. Just think of Marissa Mayer – following Yahoo's announcement that she would take over as CEO, news reports and social media buzzed more about her pregnancy than her qualifications or the strategic changes she is likely to make, leading to headlines like The Wall Street Journal's “For Yahoo CEO, Two New Roles – Six Months Pregnant With Her First Child, Marissa Mayer Must Also Turn Around a Troubled Firm” and The New York Times' “Yahoo Chief's Challenge? Corner Office, New Baby.” It also led to responses like Harvard Business Review's “Being Pregnant Is the Least of Marissa Mayer's Challenges” and CNN's “Focus on Marissa Mayer's brain, not her pregnancy.” 

  • Storytelling makes a difference. We all know in today's world, content is king. If we want to reach people and make an emotional connection between companies and the public, it needs to be done on a consistent and everyday basis. Companies have tons of great stories, from new markets and customer insights to emerging technologies and leadership development. Mining for rich anecdotes and putting them online, or providing access to journalists, will build a powerful connection between a company and its stakeholders. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, for example, does a great job telling an impassioned story, showing why funds and a driving force are needed to galvanize industry, academia, and the scientific community toward a Parkinson's cure. It also inspires everyday people to step up and engage in everything from fundraising to clinical trials research.

  • Companies shouldn't be afraid to admit failures. Companies fail just as people fail. They have weaknesses and they have to abandon projects. But that makes the successes even more important. You learn from your mistakes and companies do, too. Forget about the old advice that it is possible to lay low and stay out of sight until your failure passes by. Own up to it and you will gain credibility and trust. Jamie Dimon's public admission that he was “dead wrong” to dismiss the “London Whale” trading loss as a “tempest in a teapot” is a case in point – it earned him a lot more sympathy than he otherwise might have gotten, and arguably helped him garner support among stakeholders. It also helped him survive the shareholder vote on whether to split his role as chairman and chief executive of the bank.

  • People expect to be engaged in conversation. Content generation is critical, but even if information reaches people, it might not stick. People want to be heard, interact, have a voice – just think of the social media backlash that Netflix experienced last year when it announced price changes for its DVD and video-streaming subscription services. If companies want to demonstrate their human side, they'll engage their stakeholders in a genuine dialogue.

  • It takes creativity to break through. You might say that we've told our story – see our website, news coverage, annual report, press releases. But with all the noise in the media, once you've told people something, you need to find ways to tell them again, make them listen, and remember. Only creative, out-of-the-box thinking will allow you to go back to the same audiences over and over again, with consistent messages that are memorable. That means making people laugh, inspiring them to think deeply, or intriguing them in some way – but never being dull. With that in mind, look again at all of the materials that companies put out, and realize that we can all do better.

These rules are not complex. But if we want to change the minds of the 75% of the public who don't see companies as people, we have to step up our game in these simple ways to change opinion. Some say that we could do a better job as PR leaders – and they are right. We also need to continue to fight to get the budgets and the seat at the table to be able to create and implement bold, expansive communications initiatives that reach out and touch people in a meaningful way. 

Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn.

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