The-Trouble-with-Hollow-Men

The Trouble with Hollow Men

There is much dispute around the who actually first said “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything” but the implication is clear. A lack of conviction will leave one highly susceptible to group-think, demagogues and charlatans.

A lack of demonstrable conviction is also what appears to drive the disillusionment with our current political leaders and process.

The developed world appears to be beset by a twin crisis of confidence, moral relativism -driving lack of core values and total cynicism when it comes to our political leaders.

It can be argued that Trump, Brexit, the revolving door of Australian Prime Ministers and the retreat from the two party system are all symptoms of this lack of conviction and erosion of trust.

The electorate appears to crave conviction politicians and clear, visionary leadership. Yet, the combination of constant media scrutiny and ‘analysis’ and the cacophony of special interest demands pushes politicians, with any survival instinct, to move with the mood. Ultimately demolishing any credibility regarding principle.

Devising the solution to that dilemma is truly the modern conundrum.

For business the challenge is that the populace now uses the same cynical and sceptical filter when considering anything those with commercial power have to say them. This presents a significant barrier to effectively interacting with any stakeholders.

A vital step in getting through that filter is to own and live by a set of values that the community views as contributing to both the effective and principled delivery of products and/or services and to broader societal benefit.

It is a basic as ‘don’t tell me what you are going to do for me, show me’.

How many businesses try to engage with stakeholders yet either don’t have a clear set of values to measure their interactions against or act in a manner that gives the lie to any claim to be living by such?

Spending the time and energy to formalise and inculcate a set of values is an investment that will deliver manifold benefit. All business leaders should first engage with their core management team and figure out what they all stand for. Then live it.

To fail to do so is to allow your enterprise to appear as hollow as the populists who may have their moment in the sun only to, sooner rather than later, have it shine through them.

RMKA has worked on developing relevant, beneficial and enduring values for many organisations. It is the core of any sound communication and engagement strategy.

 

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Yes, reputation matters

Does it really matter when a major television channel allegedly conspires to commit a crime in another jurisdiction; when a company behaves in ways that show its supposed concern for the environment is trumped by the profit motive; and when a company leader fails accountability in public?

The short answer: yes, it does – it matters a lot. Here’s why. Research shows that reputation influences purchase decision–making and most of all, trust. Lose trust and you’ve probably lost a swag of your customers, too. More than that, you can end up paying a huge opportunity cost.

After the US Environmental Protection Agency decided BP wasn’t doing a good enough clean-up job in the wake of the huge Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it had BP banned from Federal contracts for a while. BP continues to make money around the world – but it could have made so much more.

The reputation challenge can come down not only to perceptions of an organization as a whole, but also specifically to the performance of the CEO. No fewer than five reputation-related reports were released recently and one has interestingly highlighted the need for CEOs to be more visible in discussing societal issues than in talking about financial results. The recent Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour is a typical example of this with the Tall Poppies meeting when 100 entrepreneurs and leaders discussed how to realise the potential of Australia’s female entrepreneurs.

The figures show 72% for financial results and 80% for societal issues such as income inequality, public policy issues and the CEO expressing their own views on societal concerns. That’s confronting for organisational leaders who think that they only have to satisfy their board and the shareholders. In fact, the survey showed that 65% of respondents thought CEOs focused too much on short-term financial results while nearly as many (63%) believed CEOs were not focused enough on job creation.

All the surveys highlight the fact that reputation is a complex construct, and that trust should not only focus on being trustworthy, but also having a positive influence on society and conducting business honestly and ethically.

The events in Australian of recent times affecting reputation show that it’s time not only for executives to take reputation more seriously, but also to ask themselves whether their public relations strategies are helping to build and protect this vital intangible asset. It’s not for nothing that the London-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations calls PR ‘the discipline which looks after reputation’

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Sorry – the Contrite Contrition

The mistakes that drive cynicism and undermine redemption

Saying ‘sorry’ for an incident, or issue does not ‘cut-it’ any more with affected stakeholders, or the media. Insincere apologies can make the situation even worse.

Unfortunately, CEOs have fallen into contrite contrition in just using the words, but not fully recognising the importance of the sincerity element of them. They may seek to display remorse, but they have forgotten the power ‘sorry’ possesses for people directly affected by the issue to ‘move on’ and how it can earn forgiveness.

Although saying ‘sorry’ was once the bane of all CEOs in a crisis because the legal departments would not allow it to be said for fear of admitting guilt, it now rolls off the tongue of executives whenever they feel it important to put pride aside and acknowledge a mistake.

They do it with such ease and repetition that they have forgotten two important tenants of communication –

  1. messages must address the affected stakeholders, not the broad community, and
  2. any lack of sincerity will result in the affected stakeholders feeling even more insulted, or harmed than before the artificial apology.

CEOs of the Commonwealth Bank, VW, Mitsubishi, 7/11 stores, health care organisations have all apologised for being ‘caught out’ by issues in recent times for which their organisation was responsible. They fumble with words such as ‘values’, ‘ethics’, ‘principles’ – all used to take the high moral ground and deflect blame to others down the ranks.

In most cases, they are following the ‘tried and true’ formula of crisis management – demonstrate ‘action’ after the ‘apology’ and follow it up with ‘taking responsibility’.

They use it to (a) get the media off their backs (because it gives the media the grab: “I’m sorry”) and (b) to get the staff of the organisation to ‘ensure that the issue does not happen again’.

It is called the ‘clear-up’ principle!

The formula is:

  • Statement of regret – “I’m sorry that this issue has occurred.
  • Statement of action – “We shall do everything to ensure that it does not happen again.”
  • Statement of responsibility – “We shall take responsibility for rectifying with the issue.”

When using this formula if you don’t understand your stakeholders and their influence, you are wasting your time with general apologetic words. They become meaningless, especially in today’s age of ‘self’.

The affected stakeholders are caught in cognitive dissonance – the disconnect between what is actually true and what they believe to be true.

This causes frustration which can, in turn, manifest in not only disappointment, but also anger by those who feel cheated of the expected apology.

This is best illustrated by the article entitled Apologies and Settlement in Court Review (Volume 45, Robbennolt) which found that statements of fault acceptance had more impact than apologies that simply stated sympathy without responsibility.

Therefore, to address this disconnect the secrets for saying “sorry” today are:

  • Be genuinely empathetic about your stakeholders’ situation
  • ‘Tune in’ to your affected stakeholders; know exactly who and how they are being adversely affected and ensure your apology is directed at that situation
  • Demonstrate that you care about them by empathising with their plight; it is good for your relationship
  • Convey empathy with a genuine tone and pause after delivering your apology so it does not feel like a ‘brush off’
  • Take more responsibility than necessary, especially in an ambiguous situation
  • Avoid the superfluous ‘sorry’

RMKA has many years of experience in crisis and issues management around the world and the need to show the effectiveness of a sincere apology. It can provide you with the ability and supporting communication plans to not only say: “I can see you were harmed by our actions and that matters to me”, but also to understand the impact of this statement on your stakeholders and its acceptance by them.

Now practice saying: “I’m sorry….”

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Would you like decency with that?

Helping your organisation develop a values based culture, how Bushido shows the way

Open a paper, turn on a TV, or click something that’s not bait and you will not have to turn far, wait long, or search hard to find a story about bad corporate behaviour. This is no better illustrated than by the recent Mossack Fonseca (Panama Papers) and Unaoil revelations (ably supported by a cast of local stories such as 7/Eleven, CommInsure, Wilson Security et al).

So, is the surfacing of these revelations a deterioration in corporate culture and associated decline in ethical standards, or has this always been the way in which the spinning of the globe has been oiled and there has just been a rise in investigative reporting that has brought these issues out into the open?

The answer is likely a mix of the two, however the naïve optimist in me would like to think that a fall in the standard of behaviour accounts for the majority of the stories that have been broken; as opposed to the alternative of low-standards having always existed out of view.

Progressing on that basis, the question arises how do organisations ensure that their much vaunted corporate values are adhered to in the pursuit of shareholder value and returns? As we know, dollars (or perhaps what they represent) are very powerful things.

Societal values are evolutionary in nature; by way of example I cite our acceptance of violence. It wasn’t so long ago that a punch up at the pub, though not encouraged, was accepted as a form of dispute resolution. Rightly, this is no longer the case.

I therefore contend that organisations (be they government, corporate, or not-for-profit) need to have an adaptive system in place that educates their operational headcount about what is, and is not behaviourally acceptable. A one-off, tick box exercise to satisfy a checklist would not be sufficient given that the subject matter is undergoing continual metamorphoses.

An enlightening parallel can be found in Bushido: The Soul of Japan, an explanation, if you will, written by Inazo Nitobe[1] of the moral principles that Samurai were required or instructed to observe.

The nature of the system was such that it was not a written code; rather it was a set of principles that were handed down organically (not unlike an oral history) either via word of mouth, or more impressively through deed.

Interestingly, the paid fighter was naturally recruited from some fairly rough and ready personnel, it was through the generational application of the ‘unwritten moral code’ that Samurai came to be highly respected and seen as both the exemplars and guardians of the highest behavioural standards.

It was a sorting of the wheat and chaff that conveyed enormous privilege and responsibility upon those within its ranks.

It is possible to make the argument that our leaders are those now charged with passing down through word and deed the standards that are expected of their charges. These standards must be the living representation of ‘Value Statements’ and take into account the evolving expectations of society at large.

As outlined by my colleagues Rob Masters (Contrite Contrition) and John Kananghinis (The Values Deficit) in this edition of Words and Insights society at large has had enough of hearing mealy mouthed platitudes laid at the foot of the most recent scandal. They want to see leaders who own the situation and the moment; leaders who embody their values statements through their actions; thereby laying the foundations and paving the way for the next generation of Samurai to follow them, and protect society’s behavioural standards.

For a brief history of Japan, click here

 

[1] Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) was born in Morioka, Iwate prefecture. After graduating from Sapporo Agricultural School, he went to the United States and Germany, where he studied agriculture and economics. On his return to Japan, he held various positions in education. From 1920 to 1926 he stayed in Geneva as Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations. After retiring from that post, he dedicated his life to peace. In 1933 he died in Banff, Canada.