ITL #308 A big step beyond messaging: the importance of communicators challenging business

1 year, 1 month ago


PR professionals have a role to play in influencing how organisations behave. Agencies and in-house comms teams must become bolder and better at convincing business leaders to implement strategic change. By Jeremy Galbraith.

The phone rings. A prospective client has a problem – a big one – and it has set aside a similarly big budget to put it right. The agency brief requests significant communications and public affairs support to make the issue disappear. How to respond?

The agency’s response is almost always to propose to do exactly what was requested of them by the client in the RFP. And this applies equally in-house, when a CEO asks their Communications Director for help resolving an issue or crisis facing their company: they tend to do what they’re asked.

But should they?

The cure for reputational challenges is seldom more (or different) communications. The central problem in many cases is that the organisation’s business strategy, or its business practices, are what is causing the crisis, not the way they are communicated.

In most people’s minds, public relations is considered to be a messaging activity whose purpose is to make organisations look good in the media or to sell products, rather than as a management activity that influences how organisations behave and improves relationships among stakeholders and organisations.

A role in organisational governance

In June 2010, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, an association of national public relations associations, issued a set of principles for public relations professionals. One of them was that public relations should play a major role in organisational governance and management as well as in communication programmes and that its value comes from increasing the organisation’s sustainability “across the economic, social, and environmental ‘triple bottom line’”.

So rather than being the ‘dupe’ tasked with trying to smooth-talk away the indefensible – and of course shouldering the blame if the issue is not resolved – the agency or in-house comms team should instead be bold and challenge the organisation’s leadership to change its business strategy first. Only when authentic change has been put in place can communications be effective.

For eons, different cultures all around the world have had proverbs that highlight this concept: in Africa, “when deeds speak, words are nothing”; in China, “talk doesn’t cook rice”; the Jewish proverb “do not be wise in words – be wise in deeds”; and, for me closer to home, “actions speak louder than words”. When did the corporate world start to believe that the opposite might be true?

Let me give an example.

Excessive packaging

I enjoy the convenience of online shopping as much as the next person. But when a parcel turns up on my doorstep, nothing is guaranteed to take away the pleasure of its arrival as much as the depressing mountain of packaging involved in its delivery. Whatever I have ordered is sent to me in a much larger cardboard box just to accommodate the swathes of brown paper, bubble wrap or packing peanuts included to prevent damage. Then the item itself is also packaged in a second layer of promotional plastic and carboard.

Does it really need quite so much protection to reach me safely? Do I really need the promotional layer when I have already bought the product? Is there really no environmentally-friendly substitute for all of this plastic and polystyrene?

Off to the supermarket … and bottled water is another product guaranteed to get me fizzing. When you buy water in the shops, does it really need six plastic bottles, each with a one-use plastic cap, all swathed in heavy plastic film and topped by an additional plastic strip to create a handle? There are perfectly efficient schemes already in place that involve reusable glass bottles, reusable crates and a refundable deposit. And don’t get me started on drinks being served with a throw-away plastic straw and stirrer…

The plastic pollution crisis has become increasingly visible in the public consciousness. Horrifying images of choked wildlife and piles of plastic waste in our communities and ecosystems have intensified public concern. Yet for individuals like me, it is almost impossible to avoid creating plastic waste, even when shopping for basic needs such as food. 

In 2015, 40% of all plastics made were used in packaging, the largest of all markets for plastics. And that is now being added to exponentially by the packaging that surrounds our ever increasing online purchases.

Changing consumer sentiment

The tide is turning, though, and consumers are radically changing the way they look at packaging and products. No amount of reassuring communication will prevent a public backlash against the most profligate plastic users. Instead, these organisations and companies need to radically rethink the way they do business – and that is where we as communicators can help them.

Today, we are living in a post-truth era filled with fake news, and alternative facts. In this climate of mistrust, it’s vitally important for business to listen closely to all their stakeholders and engage in an authentic dialogue with them. The one-way communication model just doesn’t work anymore. And the days of spin for business leaders (and politicians alike) are truly – and thankfully – over. It’s time for honest and conviction-led leadership.

As industry professionals, we need to recommit to core communications values as well as ethical business principles. And there has simply never been a greater need for companies to be purpose-driven, keeping empathy for people and planet at the heart of their strategy.

Ethics is all about leading with deeds not words and PR is an applied social science focused on two things: behaviour and communications. Promises mean nothing without proof. People say all sort of things just to appease others. You can only learn about a person’s – or an organisation’s – true character by watching their behaviour toward you and toward others. Actions should meet verbal commitments, not conflict with them.

Radically rethinking business strategy

The myriad of companies and organisations who use plastic packaging will need to rethink their business strategy radically if they are to keep their reputations intact.

The issue of behaviour, of corporate ethics, of winning public trust is something we will see companies continue to grapple with in the future as long as they do not put purpose at the heart of everything they do, as much as everything they say.

As communicators, we must not be afraid to ask direct and difficult questions of leadership. In return, we can offer them a highly informed, global perspective on their issues, helping them stand tall when the going gets rough, and ensuring that they can deliver business results while burnishing both their organisation’s and their personal reputations.


Jeremy Galbraith is Managing Partner of consultancy firm BOLDT. He has 30 years’ experience advising leading companies, organisations, governments, Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs on how to communicate strategically with almost every type of stakeholder. He was CEO of Burson-Marsteller EMEA for a decade until 2017, leading 700+ employees in 32 offices. Previously he was CEO of Burson-Marsteller Brussels.



Jeremy Galbraith




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The Author

Jeremy Galbraith

Jeremy Galbraith is Managing Partner of consultancy firm BOLDT. He has 30 years’ experience advising leading companies, organisations, governments, Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs on how to communicate strategically with almost every type of stakeholder. He was CEO of Burson-Marsteller EMEA for a decade until 2017, leading 700+ employees in 32 offices. Previously he was CEO of Burson-Marsteller Brussels.

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