There was lots of talk of integrity, authenticity, transparency, and truth at the Arthur Page Center 2018 Awards in New York City on Wednesday evening.
And why shouldn’t there be? After all, the organization was set up specifically to promote "integrity in public communication."
These tenets were espoused in spades from the stage by two of the 2018 honorees: Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and now senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and John Onoda, veteran of CCO stints at GM, Levi Strauss, Visa, and Charles Schwab, and now a consultant at Gagen MacDonald.
Onoda said: "Integrity in PR is more important than ever. Integrity and trust are withering in the public’s view of leaders and institutions. In the absence of trust and integrity, cynicism, opportunism, greed, and the abuse of power flourish.
"Cynical people manipulate the system to achieve positions of power, only to lead their followers, constituencies, or flocks down the wrong path. Civil discourse becomes impossible."
He observed that PR people used to be part of a relatively closed network of large companies, government bodies, agencies, and the news media, which had a near monopoly on words in the public space.
"Without our involvement, no average citizen – and even many powerful ones – could make a dent on the public’s consciousness," he added.
Clearly that time is well and truly gone.
As Onoda pointed out: "Anyone with a cellphone can potentially reach billions, starting a public discussion or even a movement."
Any individual can propagate their story and version of the truth, making it almost impossible to sort fact from fiction. Check out your Twitter or Facebook feeds on any given day and I guarantee they’ll be littered with negative, biased, and sensationalized words and images.
In this environment, Onoda noted, you’d never know most people are in essence "normal, honest, and good," and that most companies and institutions "function as they are intended, try to obey the law and do their best."
His sad observation was that, today, when something is said in public, "everyone instinctively awaits the accusation or revelation that the statement was misleading or inaccurate."
This obviously has significant implications for all public discourse, but particularly for PR pros, because "skepticism and cynicism toward communications have become second nature to most listeners."
"This leads them to assume disparities between what leaders say and what they actually do; between the values they express and the values (or lack of values) revealed by their actions," concluded Onoda.
In that environment, he singled out one particular Page Principle and urged all business leaders and communicators to "Prove it with Action."
He counseled: "The principle is not ‘prove it with words.’ Nor does it say ‘prove it with press releases.’ ‘Tweets.’ ‘Advertisements.’ ‘Op-eds.’ ‘Photo-ops.’ ‘Full-page ads.’ ‘Blogger exclusives.’ And everything else in our bag of tricks."
"It is – ‘Prove it with Action.’"
These words were reinforced and echoed by the remarks of George, one of those rare CEOs who really understood communications and prioritized it as a fundamental strategic business function - and who is now espousing these crucial values to other CEOs in his educational role at Harvard.
The former Medtronic leader echoed thoughts that have been expressed in the pages of PRWeek many times.
Leaders must be completely transparent and upfront with all their stakeholders to create an authentic, sustainable, and successful enterprise.
They can no longer rely on the old-fashioned tactic of slicing and dicing communication for different audiences – one message for customers, another for shareholders, and yet another for staffers.
George noted that the truth will always out. If you try to be deceitful it will be impossible to dial back the narrative.
He urged CEOs to be upfront with the media, especially in times of crisis, and engage honestly, openly, and naturally – be yourself, don’t try to be something you’re not, and don’t try to obfuscate.
Don’t succumb to the temptation to be overly media trained – be yourself. You will come over more authentically and with integrity, and the broadcaster or journalist interviewing you will also appreciate the approach.
It is part of the Page Principle of "Proving it with Action."
Onoda considers the principle powerful in its simplicity and insight.
"It is especially relevant to our current predicament, because integrity is mostly a matter of acting consistent with your values or fulfilling your promises," he explained.
By "our current predicament," he meant a significant portion of the population believes government and big business no longer operate according to values such as fairness, honesty, and integrity; they feel politicians and other leaders haven’t lived up to their promises; and they think news media is biased.
As Onoda noted, for the PR pro this means "taking on the uncomfortable role of the conscience of the company, the naysayer, the wet blanket."
"We have to take on entrenched beliefs such as the notion that decisions must be made primarily for the short-term financial benefit of investors; or to win the support of politicians; or to fend off activist investors; or to hold onto key talent even if individuals are behaving in abhorrent ways," he added.
For the CCO, this means having the courage and principled nature to put themselves on the line and stand up to the CEO or general counsel, the COO or CFO.
"We’ve got to talk about uncomfortable, preachy things like ethics, fairness, trust, and integrity with people who can influence our compensation and our careers," noted Onoda.
Ethical considerations should be of concern to everyone in an organization, not just the communicators, but the reality is that an effective CCO has to be the one driving this, 100% of the time.
CCOs are the liquid that infuses all parts of a business or enterprise – and they have to be strong and persistent in their pursuit of high standards if their organizations are to survive and prosper in this cutthroat world.
I just hope these noble words and principles can survive in this febrile environment and that "normal, honest, and good" qualities win out.