‘Corporate purpose’ comms should take a lesson from think tanks

The past few months have posed many questions.

Purveyors of purpose could take a lesson from the intellectual consistency of think tanks, argues Tom Hashemi
Purveyors of purpose could take a lesson from the intellectual consistency of think tanks, argues Tom Hashemi

Are we living through “the great reset” that many have been calling for? When we look back, will the graph of the global economy resemble a V, U, W, or a letter from a whole other alphabet? What will the shape it takes mean for the shape of society?

Last week, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, announced that its annual Davos powwow of corporate titans will in 2021 focus on this “great reset” and decide the future of capitalism.

Whatever the future looks like, the global agenda won’t be set by corporate captains in ski resorts.

Corporates have long celebrated their social responsibility and purpose, these intrinsic values that drive their businesses forward. 

But as Warren Buffet once said, you only find out who’s been swimming naked when the tide goes out.

Take Hiscox, whose refusal to pay out business disruption insurance claims from small businesses – PR firms included – has made headlines.

The company lists integrity as a core value: doing the right thing - however hard. Yet some things, it appears, are too hard for Hiscox. 

That is just one example. 

For all bar the most ardent proponents of corporate purpose, money talks, and values are fleeting. Why do we maintain the facade?

Lessons from afar

Think tanks take an altogether different approach: they maintain conviction of purpose.

Think tanks are universal in their relentless affirmation of their moral frameworks. 

You almost know before reading a think tank report what it will say based on who wrote it. 

The Institute for Public Policy Research always pursues a left-leaning agenda. 

The Institute of Economic Affairs always does the same for economic liberalisation. 

Chatham House will always argue in favour of the international world order. 

The Henry Jackson Society will always argue against non-democratic societies.

For some, intellectual consistency is, perhaps, not so inspiring. 

For the "business of ideas" to promote the same ideas time and time again is not quite what the moniker suggests. 

But this is true organisational purpose; a clearly articulated position, intellectually robust, reliably and regularly communicated. 

A moral foundation that is exactly that: foundational.

Consistency does not mean complacency. Think tanks may stick to the positions they take, but their arguments, evidence, and the means they use to make their case evolves and adapts. 

This requires creativity and storytelling ability, an area in which corporates excel – and most think tanks do not.

Both groups could learn from each other, but once think tanks begin to excel in creativity, business will struggle to take back the agenda. 

Those think tanks at the forefront of their sector are having policy impact that corporates can only dream of – perhaps because they consistently stand for something greater than profit.

Tom Hashemi is director of Cast From Clay


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