A great transition

How can communicators win their own social licence to operate? With purpose-driven communications that work towards a sustainable world.

Sustainability is no longer a buzzword used by advertisers and corporate CSR departments; it’s a global agenda binding governments, corporations, civil society and citizens together to secure the sustainable future of our planet.

What role will communications and communicators play in forging this new world? A world where we all live, work and play together, a green and peaceful world.

By no longer spinning truths into half truths or untruths, communications and all its related functions like public relations, marketing communications, advertising and public affairs can enable The Great Transition to a new, better world.

Am I dreaming or could this actually become a reality? In that future world we would of course still have our challenges. We are human after all. Yet we would be living and working according to appreciation, respect and maybe even of love for one another.

We know communications professionals acknowledge they are accountable to multiple stakeholders, but will they start to include the planet and its future as their ultimate stakeholder? Can they be persuaded to acknowledge the communications function has a critical role to play in shaping our world?

Can we harness our collective energy and make sure we define an agenda that works towards this? To define the purpose of communications, and give it its rightful place, with purpose?

How can we get there? Do we get there by transition or by disruption? Will it happen to us or do we have an active role to play? The answer to that obviously depends on your theory of change. For me it is clear. I believe we need to try and work together to pave a path for sustainable living rather than have it disrupt us.

Even if the likelihood of getting there through some kind of a disruption is big, I would like us to have done our utmost to contribute to a transitional way of getting to the new world.

“In this way, the function gains purchase in people’s minds. That purchasing power is huge.” 

My understanding of and reflection on getting to the new world has evolved over recent years. In various work responsibilities, we have assessed and debated levers for positive, transformational change (see box below).

That process has influenced my view on the role of communications as a function. I actually believe that if we communications professionals would all practice truthful communications and be purpose-driven, we could actively contribute to significant, sustainable change in the world.

The Great Transition

The Great Transition is a term used by the Global Scenario Group to describe a vision of a just and sustainable global future. The term was originally used by Kenneth E. Boulding in The Meaning of the 20th Century: The Great Transition (1964), considered a hallmark conception of systems thinking and the shift from pre-modern to post-modern culture and the four possible courses of action that will allow humanity to successful journey the Great Transition. The elements of the Great Transition vision include egalitarian social and ecological values, increased human interconnectedness, improved quality of life, and a healthy planet, as well as an absence of poverty, war, and environmental destruction. (Wikipedia)

Aiming for accountability

What do I mean by ‘truthful communications’ and ‘purpose-driven’? What about the communications function as part of this?

The communications function is more fundamental than many understand it to be. It is not just another function that serves organisations, governments and companies to inform, promote or market products and services to their audiences.

Not only is it the key function that spans all (internal and external) stakeholders, analyses what drives them and creates connections with them; communications holds the greatest power through owning the words and images that get transmitted to stakeholders and, most importantly, through owning the channels of communication.

In this way, the function gains purchase in people’s minds to secure their loyalty. That purchasing power is huge.

Look at the communications landscape today. We see a plethora of (often amazingly creative) communications through the art of story telling by companies, by organisations and by governments. Some of this beautiful art is truthful and in line with what that particular company or organisation stands for.

Some of it is aligned with the Triple P model: people, planet, prosperity. Yet much of this communication is transmitting unethical fairy tales purely to conquer the hearts and minds of audiences.

What if we start looking at communications and the challenges society is facing through the lenses of our function and as part of the bigger societal picture? Can we still conduct our function apart from the critical issues facing us today; or do we, through the function, contribute to finding solutions for sustainable living?

This is at the heart of truthful communications and the need to be purpose-driven.

Truthful communication acts in the way we originally conceived the function. We communicate in line with the identity of the company, organisation or government and, through that, make a connection with our audience.

This creates a powerful emotional bond between sender and receiver. Over the years, however, we have seen (particularly through the art of branding) that the identity communicated is not always truthful.

On behalf of those we work for, who we believe we are accountable to, we have mastered the art of communicating a make-believe image, out of sync with the actual identity. In times of stress and crisis we have learned the art of spinning.

We have even created awards to celebrate success when a company in crisis got out of it through masterful (some would say manipulative or even evil) crisis communications. I am not interested in ‘naming and shaming’ companies, yet I believe many seasoned communications experts will have (actively) supported (or observed those who do) a company during a crisis situation by spinning half-truths as truisms.

“Being purpose-driven can empower communications professionals.”

This way of working has allowed companies to get away with bad practices thanks to skilful communications. This is communications supporting the status quo, preventing meaningful change from taking place and allowing companies to escape without consequence. Ironically, escaping short-term pain, and failing to reform, might prove more harmful for a company in the long-term. The truth is, maybe we would all be better off by saying goodbye to some of those companies.

Through some parts of the communication function, we have even paved ways (to political capitals, and using political capital) to ensure acceptance and even endorsement of bad corporate behaviour. The whole debate and reality about climate scepticism and the role of communications in this is exemplary. Now with the COP21 deal, I believe we should start thinking more proactively about how we as communications professionals need to contribute.

Levers for change

In an ever more connected world, where citizens have greater access to information and the independent means to organize themselves, these levers vary significantly, depending on ones theory of change and – aligned with this – the organisation one works for. A lever could be around people’s values, so we connect with people based on their values and bring them along a journey of positive, sustainable change. Another lever is the one of confrontation, when pushing unwilling opponents thus far that the need for them to agree to (transformational) change is the only option forward. Sometimes it requires an Edward Snowdon.

Telling the truth

This brings me to being purpose-driven. At the European Communication Summit in Brussels in 2015, I heard purpose being defined as the delivery on a human, societal or world need. I felt a close connection with that definition.

Purpose to me is when one works for something larger than self, or the boss and organisation one is accountable to. If we go one step further, we can appreciate being accountable to a larger purpose, including future generations and the sustainability of the planet, and this would make us handle power in the right, uncorrupted way.

Being purpose-driven can also empower communications professionals as they know they are communicating in honesty, touching the hearts of their audiences in a direction that is authentic. They could feel pride in a way that reaches beyond traditional job satisfaction.

Much depends on the definition of purpose (and there are various definitions) and this is clearly a personal or organisational choice. At a personal level that could mean, however, that some people would exclude working for particular companies. It’s my hypothesis that, through purpose-driven and truthful communications at all levels, communications professionals can contribute to one of the many tipping points that are needed to make sustainable living on this beautiful planet a reality. I believe that collectively we can contribute to shaping transformational change rather than continuous incremental changes.

The Triple P model

The triple bottom line consists of social equity, economic, and environmental factors. “People, planet and profit” succinctly describes the triple bottom lines and the goal of sustainability. The phrase, “people, planet, profit”, was coined by John Elkington in 1994 while at Sustain Ability, and was later adopted as the title of the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell’s first sustainability report in 1997. As a result, one country in which the 3P concept took deep root was The Netherlands. At the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 the p of proft was adapted to represent ‘prosperity’ to embed societal progress into the concept. (Wikipedia)

Inge Wallage

Inge Wallage is Managing Director of the EACD and owner of The Butterfly Effect: Strategies for Transformation. Her professional experience includes Engagement Director for International Water Association, Director of Communications at Greenpeace International and Vice President Communications International E&P at StatoilHydro.