The word "culture" is derived from the same root as the word "cult"
(the Latin "colere," which means to worship or cultivate), so it's no
surprise some people react badly to the concept of corporate
Some of the strongest cultures - like South-west Airlines - have a
cultish aspect that may disturb both outsiders and insiders who don't
Klaus Kochs, Volkswagen corporate comms head, finds the notion of
corporate culture problematic. In a recent speech to the International
Public Relations Association, Kochs worried about imposing a consistent
corporate culture on a diverse group, particularly one with operations
in many countries.
He questioned if corporations "have the right to penetrate the thoughts
and feelings of their staff right down to their sense of values," and
suggested that "culture management" is "tantamount to starting a new
religion or sect."
"The idea of a starting a new religion 'directed' by management would be
pure hubris," said Kochs, perhaps a bit too overwrought, "the dangerous
arrogance of mankind when playing god."
Of course, an organization has a culture whether it is "directed" by
management or not. The only questions are whether that culture is
coherent or chaotic; whether the values are consciously selected or the
result of random, impromptu decisions.
(If Volkswagen's values differ by region, one manager might reward staff
for individual work, while another might promote based on helping the
team. Staffers will likely get confused about what is expected of them
each time a new manager takes over their area.)
This is particularly vital to professional communicators because values
are the building blocks of corporate character, and corporate character
is the foundation on which reputation is built. Simply put: reputation
is driven by behavior; behavior is driven by character; character is
driven by values.
One of the main goals of senior corporate communicators is that both
they and the employees understand the company's values. The strongest
cultures thrive on reinforcement through tales of individuals who lived
the organization's values and were rewarded for it. In such companies,
these tales are familiar to all, and are reinforced in employee
communications both formal and informal.
It's fair to suggest many corporate crises stem from employees' failure
to live up to the values expected of them. Examples range from the
recent woes at Enron, where managers apparently lost sight of the
company's values, to the Denny's crisis a decade ago, triggered by the
actions of minimum-wage employees who interacted with customers.
Any senior communications professional who doesn't understand the
importance of culture, of values, will find himself attempting to build
a reputation without the most basic of raw materials.
Paul Holmes has spent the last 15 years writing about the PR business
for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation
Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of