Taking in the recent Page Annual Conference, "Culture as Competitive Advantage" in my high school home of Palos Verdes, I was reminded of two things. First, that it had been 33 years since I stood on the same ground, a summer employee at Marineland, the seaside entertainment park whose dolphin and fish tanks later gave way to the luxurious Terranea Resort, our meeting venue. Second, that in the nine years of my membership in the Arthur W. Page Society, I have become convinced that the policies and preferences of Page are anti-competitive.

I don’t mean this in the sense that the FTC might come sniffing. I mean it with respect to what the Society commissions in its reports and white papers, what we feature in our programs, and what we teach. I am aware that the phrase “competitive advantage” was linked with the meeting’s theme of culture and indispensability. But that connection was forgotten or ignored, I’m not sure which. In any case, there is scant evidence in our Society that this is really where our collective heads are at today. In meeting after meeting, I have taken to counting the apparently radioactive utterances of words like win, prevail, beat, rival, opposition, debate, position, de-position, strategy and research. I never run out of fingers. Yet these are crucial and concrete concepts for communicators. Perfect to contemplate at a business conference. What I hear far more often in my casual content analyses are instead words like trust, reputation, credibility, agree, integrity, values and authenticity. Laudable terms, yes. But you’d think I’m in church.

When I asked a question to the featured panel of four future leaders, Where is your head at in terms of your competition?, the answers were revealing, not as a reflection of their achievements but of what they appeared to have learned (or not learned) in our celebrated Future Leaders program. One said stiffly of her company’s communications function, Well…we’re competitive. We have competitors. She was baffled. Two others passed on the query altogether. The fourth expressed the happy sentiment that, well, he preferred to think of his job as more a process of advancing the interests of his company than helping it compete against others. Really?

At Page we’re pushing what feels good more than what in our industry is right. That our chairman sanctions reputation as the Society’s driving purpose, a subject that enjoys no basis for consistent measurement or accountability in its management, that we freely fund the subjective theses of Authentic Enterprises and Public Trusts, both of which seem more high-minded than well-tested, that we endorse the Penn State Page Center and its focus on integrity, a moral if not inappropriate imperative to hang above research, and that we offer in our Future Leaders program all these things without the perspective of THE COMPETITION is, well, a step back.

The Page Society is a place that honors good work and struggles for the true north of a true CCO. As we should. Trust, authenticity, and reputation are fine, of course. But they are mere strategies of the larger objective – to advance a company’s relative position in a free and competitive marketplace. Moving forward, let’s balance idealism with what is measurable. Let’s not hide from or apologize that our business is based on influence. Let’s leave the fishbowl and move into the real world.

Alan Kelly
CEO & Founder, Playmaker Systems, LLC