- Corporate Communication
For Arthur Page Society members there's a lesson in the 40th anniversary of our nation's moon landing: Celebrate the achievement, but don't get too sentimental.
Just as we marvel this month at the accomplishment of landing two men on the moon there's also much to applaud in the accomplishments of corporate communications. Over a similar interval, its industry growth has been rapid and CCOs are now routinely entrusted with the new era's crown jewels of message, meaning and media. Truly, the advances of communications, particularly in business and politics, are not out of proportion to those of the bygone space race. Sputnik came with Bernays. Hubble came with Branson.
The result: Communications is critical to any entity in a modern competitive marketplace.
But just like the U.S. space program, we are far less clear about how and where to take it from here. And that is the root of my upset with the Page Society and its apparent obsession with such things as authenticity and trust and the resulting white paper and report the Society has so zealously promoted.
In matters of space travel some are determined to advance us toward Mars. In matters of corporate communication we Pagers seem determined to advance ourselves toward trust. I'm not a supporter of either cosmic notion. It's not that manned missions to Mars and, well, trust are without merit. Far from it. It's just that these things are no longer preeminent or appropriate to our abilities and potential.
Have I missed the headlines, that there's a crisis of trust out there, particularly toward corporations? No. I've just read them differently. And what I think about trust is this:
• It is not something that communications can restore.
• In fact, we helped lose it.
• It cannot be consistently measured.
• It cannot be reliably managed.
• It is thus a trap door to the CCO who covets a seat at the table.
Clearly, too, this so-called crisis is not a pandemic. There are companies and industries whose stakeholders are profoundly alienated from them (think GM, Exxon and Citigroup in automotive, energy and financial services). Yet others are not (think Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Southwest Airlines in technology, healthcare and transportation).
I am no less skeptical of the lusty and, by my ear, moralistic musings on authenticity. Like reputation management, it is a prop against which communications can be sold more than it is a mechanism for advancing a corporation's position. Who among us knows what authenticity really is and when it has been achieved? Who among us can convey this to our teams and superiors with specificity and in a way that does little more than suggest we should all just keep our noses clean. Indeed, authenticity, trust, and let's not forget the building fascination for values, are better left for scout pledges than business benefits.
What's this got to do walking on the moon? Twenty years ago, I authored a thesis on communications issues of manned space flight. Through my research, I had the privilege of meeting and enjoying the company of numerous astronauts and cosmonauts. Each was imbued justifiably with a sense of accomplishment. But not one that I met – including a moonwalker – was clear about where it would take us. Some, in fact, were deeply racked by this very question.
I suppose I am racked, too, not of course by when or if we'll lift off again, but by when we'll keep our collective communicating feet on the ground. The call to be authentic or trustful is no more useful than the call to re-conquer the solar system. The answer, from my perch, is that our most compelling frontiers are right under our nose, in carbon and silicon more than microgravity and, likewise, the practical potentials in communications are hidden not in relationships but in the strategies that move markets and the ways they are applied.
Communications is a frontier field, even after its own 40 years of commercial success. But what we have still to learn and how we fashion and apply it going forward should be based on systems and real science not hopeful words and platitudes. We're otherwise just walking on the moon.
CEO of The Playmaker's Standard, LLC
USC Annenberg School for Communication
© Copyright 2009, Alan D. Kelly. All rights reserved.
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