The comms behind corporate purpose: art or science in the age of 'radical transparency'?

I can still recall a question from my economics A-level exam 30 years ago; is economics an art or a science?

If an organisation fulfils a a purpose people believe matters, everything falls into place, says Jenny Scott
If an organisation fulfils a a purpose people believe matters, everything falls into place, says Jenny Scott

At 17 I had no patience for ambiguity, wanting and believing in certainties, so my instinct was to side with science.

But in time, I became more fascinated with human responses to economic issues – in all their glorious complexities.

From the editor-in-chief: The future of business may hinge on one word - purpose

There is of course huge power and skill in synthesising complicated issues into simple, resonant messages – but that should not be confused with simplifying the underlying issue itself.

The present debate about the purpose of a corporation is a case in point. There is a beguiling simplicity to short-term profit maximisation; one time frame, one stakeholder, one motive, one metric.

Companies could bolt on a CSR proposition to cover off criticism of being self-serving and everyone would be happy.

But the world has changed.

Global megatrends such as environmental degradation and wealth inequality are colliding against the backdrop of a transparency so radical it is shifting power from a company’s shareholders to multiple other stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, communities.

They’re asking questions, demanding change and if they don’t get it they’re boycotting or protesting or voting for populist leaders who promise deliverance.

Corporate character has become centre stage. And that gives communications professionals the keys to value creation like never before.

A growing body of academic evidence from the past 20 years shows that companies that optimise value for multiple stakeholders – not just shareholders – generate better long-run returns than short-term profit maximisers. 

Reputation matters. It’s the canary in the coal mine, an early indicator of disengagement and potential trouble, and also of success

Jenny Scott, founder partner at Apella


In other words, if an organisation is trusted to fulfil a purpose people believe matters, employees work harder, customers are more loyal, suppliers more reliable, communities more supportive.

Stakeholders’ views of a company drive their engagement, which drives value.

Reputation matters. It’s the canary in the coal mine, an early indicator of disengagement and potential trouble, and also of success.

It responds not to polishing the outside of the box, but to actions and decisions taken internally that shape a corporate’s character.

With reputation simultaneously a value-driver, a risk-management aid and an indicator of future value, it deserves rigorous, systematic attention in its entirety.

It should have board-level focus, using both data and judgement.

'Consumers are looking at us and our partners, suppliers and employees' - P&G's purpose challenge

It is notable that our industry hasn’t been as disrupted as most by technology. And to be clear, experience and nous will always matter.

But if communications is to play its proper part in a company’s value creation it needs to be executed with the same rigour as that of the sales team or the research department.

It is the way to transform it from being a cost centre to a revenue generator.

Every organisation is different, every context, every issue. There will always be a need for experience and judgement.

But in communications – just as in economics – art and science are mutually reinforcing.

I’ve learned to embrace ambiguity. It’s just one aspect of what makes this business so compelling.

Jenny Scott is a founder partner at Apella

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