For we communicators, the concept of ‘purpose’ has been on everyone’s lips and on everyone’s agenda. But do we really understand what it means, and more importantly what it implies?
Purpose and reputation are very different and shouldn’t be mistaken for each other. Reputation is based on what your organisation does. Purpose, on the other hand, constitutes the framework built on a foundation of ethical principles by which your organisation behaves. Put simply, purpose is a guideline and reputation is its execution.
And purpose is on everyone’s lips right now. In fact, it was one of the key take-aways at this year’s AMEC Summit. Dig into the thoughts and insights of Kristin Devey and Jack Richards over on one of our previous posts.
So, what is the purpose of purpose? Why is it important for organisations to have a purpose if they already have a good reputation or revenues? How can we make sense of it and demonstrate it authentically?
It is with these questions on my mind that I started reading Truth Be Told: How authentic marketing and communications wins in the purposeful age by John O’Brien and David Gallagher.
There are scores of often-confused terminologies and societal trends right now: purpose, CSR, ESG, SRI, stakeholder capitalism, corporate conscience… So, it is our duty as communicators to improve the literacy of what each of these terms mean to ensure that our clients are on the same page, the book proved to be a precious resource in that regard.
Truth Be Told was designed for practitioners who want to understand how they can communicate to their actions to stakeholders, and their broader purpose in disrupted market places (the book introduces the interesting idea of ‘VUCA 2.0’ to characterise our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous environment).
As two PR veterans themselves, John O’Brien and David Gallagher shared various personal anecdotes, punctuating their arguments with quotes and extracts from conversations with fellow executives and senior PR peers. By way of illustration; my favourite example is when John makes an analogy between the concept of ‘purpose, vision, mission’ and a teabag-so British!
Summarising the theory in a blog would be ambitious and frankly impossible given the wealth of knowledge and information from the book, but this reading left me with two important questions that I will certainly keep in mind for my work with clients going forward:
1. What kind of business are you?
Finding ‘the truth’ and asking the seemingly simple question: “What kind of business are we?” is a great starting point to define one’s purpose according to O’Brien and Gallagher.
They explain that for businesses to navigate and survive the VUCA 2.0 age and make a success of their marketing and communications needs, the ‘human truth’ must be defined and established to then be communicated in a truthful way:
“At the heart of business success for the future lies two things: a human truth which is the essence of the business purpose, and a truthful approach to promoting that business to the world. We can summarise these as the case for a ‘Human, Truthful Business’.”
Communicating honorable actions can only be effective if words are backed by concrete actions. In doing so, O’Brien and Gallagher advise that your first steps should be trying to:
- Truly commit to stakeholder responsibility and redefine your purpose;
- Reassess your business activities against this light (and course-correct if needed);
- Communicate about your accomplishments to the outside world.
The book also proposes a theoretical model reviewing organisations through the traditional four dimensions of marketing communications to illustrate the relationships at play:
Today’s customers are hungry for strategies that look beyond traditional marketing techniques. Successful strategies are those centred around customers but, more importantly, are those serving a wider cause by building strategic partnerships across entire sectors to generate a wider impact.
There has been a real shift in consciousness meaning that organisations can no longer solely focus on ‘financial value’ to define success but must also consider the ‘human value’. How? By looking at how businesses operate on the ground and how we can communicate this to meet entirely new expectations.
2. How can you demonstrate ‘human value’?
Understanding purpose helps us understand the desired outcomes and impact in the communities we operate in. Purpose without any measurement isn’t purposeful. Purpose should be embedded within every part of the business. This means that it’s no longer a case of measuring coverage with inputs and outputs. It is a case of measuring the activities that matter, with outcomes and impact metrics.
Organisations and communicators should be excited about the new age of purpose. Selling products is no longer an end, but a means to an end:
“You must see responsibility in responding to the challenges we now face, how you will use compassion and empathy in your decision making, how longer-term thinking can create greater clarity than short-termism, how your business is not selling a need to people but is about solving people’s needs.”
For measurement, these implications are immense:
- How do we define return on investment (ROI)? How do we perceive financial value against human value?
- Are our goals short-term goals? Should we set longer-term objectives?
- Are we measuring our sustainable value creation in a way that is consistent across sectors, countries?
- Are we anticipating emerging needs? How are we ‘fitting’ in society?
- How are we spending our resources? How do we consume? How are our resources impacting our communities?
- Are we analysing opportunities and threats more widely? Should we be aware of societal trends?
- Where are messages originating from and how are we reaching out to audiences?
- Do we understand and satisfy investors’ needs?
- Do we have an ‘authenticity gap’ issue?
If purpose is embedded within the business, as we’ve seen earlier, then PR teams should be entrenched within the business too and help finding some answers to these questions.
These past few years saw new influences emerge, with the #MeToo movement, #BlackLivesMatter, the rise of online ‘cancel’ culture, climate change and sustainability, misinformation and disinformation, data privacy, but also COVID-19 and wider political revendications.
O’Brien and Gallagher are right: we do operate in a highly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world where risks by far outweigh opportunities.
In this new world of communications, organisations are no longer expected (even wanted) to be message senders. Authentic interactions are the name of the new game: listening to stakeholders, solving customer needs, satisfying investor expectations, and enhancing communications like never before. As my colleagues said in a previous contribution to The Measurement Standard, ‘What is needed is authenticity in actions, solutions-focussed communications, supported with evaluation and insights that are relevant and meaningful.’
Creating a better, stronger world requires organisations to put purpose at the heart of what they do and demonstrate these efforts effectively by measuring their impact on society.
It is the only way that game changers will be trusted and celebrated.
More information about Truth Be Told: How authentic marketing and communications wins in the purposeful age, can be found on the publisher’s website and the book can be purchased there.