On purpose: communicating a clear and compelling mission

6 years, 10 months ago


Stakeholders and customers are increasingly harsh in judging organisations that lack a purpose beyond profitability. Communications advisers must counsel decision makers about these shifting sands if organisations are to be trusted, loved and successful in

Have you heard? Communications has never been more important.
Why? Do we save lives, rescue cats from trees, reduce famine or bring enjoyment to millions of people? Have we failed to read our job descriptions carefully?
Well, actually, some communicators do contribute to those things in the course of our work and many more are involved in outcomes of equal importance to societies all around the world.
I’m not talking just about the great use of communications for causes, such as charity fundraising or attracting donors, and to provide public information and education, such as about road safety, responsible drinking and where it’s safe to travel abroad.
No, I am talking about the opportunity for in-house communicators and our advisers to ensure organisations have a clear, simple and motivating purpose – or mission – that goes beyond just making profits in the case of companies and in the process of living up to it sees each organisation play a positive role in society.
This applies whether you work for a company incorporated by Royal Charter to act for the good of something – my organisation, The Jockey Club, acts as guardians of many of British racing’s most iconic assets and events, bringing enjoyment to millions of people, sustaining thousands of jobs and reinvesting all our profits back into the UK’s second-biggest spectator sport to support its long-term health – or whether you are a publicly-traded conglomerate with shareholders looking for maximum financial returns.
Social purpose
I’ve observed that organisations with a social purpose genuinely embedded in their DNA not only provide a huge benefit to the societies, fields, markets, communities, industries or environments in which they operate; they also derive a great return in the process.
Studies, such as Nielsen’s Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility, have found the majority of people will pay more for products and services from organisations committed to positive social and environmental impact. It is also simply common sense that supporting the ecosystem in which you operate usually makes it more sustainable over the long-term, rather than like a mine that runs out the faster you extract from it.
Just look at the impact and business success of disruptive organisations recently from Uber to Airbnb. Each has a clear purpose to achieve something good and they are proving it pays to do so. Uber’s mission is to provide transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone; plus it is aiming to reduce the number of cars needed in cities and is more affordable than traditional ‘London Black cabs’. Airbnb seeks to change the experience of travelling and make you feel part of a global community, so that you can feel a sense of belonging, as if you’re at home anywhere in the world.
More than 200 years after his death, Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy of ‘Doing well by doing good’ seems to have come of age in the 21st Century.
As this approach becomes more common, will stakeholders and customers judge harshly those slow to catch up? As communications advisers, I suggest we have an important role to counsel decision makers about these shifting sands if our organisations are to be trusted, loved and successful in the years ahead.
Dubious bolt-ons
My expectation is that it becomes decreasingly satisfactory for an organisation simply to make profits without putting back or, worse, acting irresponsibly and simply seeking to offset that with a bolted-on CSR programme.
For example, Barclays has invested more than £40 million in its Spaces for Sport initiative, developing community sports sites in the UK, China, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, Spain, the USA, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and using the power of sport to give disadvantaged young people skills to help them back into education or employment.
This should be heralded as a great example of an organisation giving back to the communities in which it operates. But today does it not smack of a bolted-on CSR initiative conceived to enhance the bank’s reputation and yet completely overshadowed because, as we now know, Barclays core business actions have not been responsible, evidenced by heavy fines for attempting to fix Libor, the world’s benchmarking borrowing rate?
If I was advising Barclays on the back of the scandal I would have talked to executives about the importance of having a clear and compelling mission woven into the fabric of the organisation that motivates both its people and customers alike, underpinned by a set of values and behaviours that see it delivered. Then any communications team can make hay, not cover up the crack in the dam with a few nice murals.
In the process of exploring the mission I would probably look back at what Barclays set out to do in the first place and consider if it rings true today (or if operations have changed so dramatically), because I find your origins are often where the most authentic answers are found – the very bedrock an organisation has been built on.
A serious review
In researching this article I’m pleased to see Barclays has undertaken a root and branch review of how it operates and its culture, and this year redefined its mission as ‘Helping people to achieve their ambitions – in the right way’.
If it lives up to that mission in the years ahead, I suggest it will not only have helped a lot of people to make their way in the world, but it will be a better, more profitable and more loved bank as a result.
To compare and contrast in the financial space, I was interested to hear the corporate story of FTSE 250 insurance firm, Hiscox. Its products can be more expensive than some other insurers, but that is because it works on the basis your insurance claim is valid and seeks to make good in times of loss. How refreshing and transparent in equal measure – and as it should be, but so often isn’t! And you still have the choice to pay less elsewhere and take your chances...
Now this is all very well, but is it really the role of communications people to steer the ship in this way? Of course it would be great if every organisation has a CEO, executive team and board for whom this is second-nature, but we all know it is not as simple as that and many different forms of expertise are needed for an organisation to succeed.
If we as communications professionals are to be the eyes, ears, conscience and common sense of our organisations, we need a seat at the top table. It is pleasing, therefore, to see the value of communications increasingly is being recognised – and its role growing so it is not just managing issues as they happen but at a more strategic level.
Boardroom presence
The PRCA’s last in-house benchmarking study found that communications is now on the board in 77% of UK organisations. It was nothing like that just a few years ago. I suspect the recession will have helped to focus minds and savvy communicators have proved their worth during it.
That is not to say all have. In agency I observed several in-house communications operations achieving the daily total of ticking a box while sitting on the opportunity for so much more.
I have come to realise that’s not necessarily an indictment of individuals, many of whom possessed plenty of talent and at least joined with the motivation to make a difference. Instead I’ve found it’s more a matter of organisational dynamics. If there is a failure in an organisation’s structure, purpose and direction or the role’s mandate, authority and resources, then this simply may not allow an individual to achieve much.
Bitter coffee}
I sat down in my local coffee shop to write a different essay than this. That was before a normally friendly barista instead served me a frothing cup of disdain when I mentioned I worked ‘in PR’. Talk of positive purpose in place of spin and she seemed converted.
I was going to outline, in a world where quantifying the value of communications is still not an exact science, how we were able to raise £25 million from what was effectively a crowdsourcing communications campaign and used the opportunity also to significantly enhance our reputation among a range of relevant audiences, thus winning PR awards as a result.
It worked because we developed an insight-based strategy from asking potential investors (the UK public) what they wanted to hear and delivered the campaign through phased executions to keep up interest and momentum.
But the key out-take would have been the same as I’ve written; the research we conducted amongst potential investors on which we built the strategy found that people wanted to know that we had a clear and compelling purpose for raising the capital we were asking for.
Even in a financial climate where you might think people would just want to know their investment is both safe and sound, they also wanted to know our purpose. Make it your mission to have one.
Author’s Details 
Scott Bowers is Group Director of Communications at The Jockey Club. Founded in 1750, today it is the largest commercial group in Britain’s second biggest sport. Previously Head of Sport at Weber Shandwick, he has worked on IPRA award-winning campaigns including Russia’s successful bid to host the Sochi 2014 Olympics.

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The Author

Scott Bowers

Scott Bowers is Group Director of Communications at The Jockey Club. Founded in 1750, today it is the largest commercial group in Britain’s second biggest sport.

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