It is time that we, as leaders of our profession, put on our big kid pants and begin leading. Our global society is faced with numerous challenges from the economy to the environment. If we simply focus on keeping our own heads above water, we run the great risk of being sucked down a vortex by a media – be it print, digital or social – that largely continues to chase itself around the same negative themes. We have the opportunity to lift society’s sights and create a better narrative by leading our organizations to build leadership platforms rather than chasing today’s question.
My time with The Coca-Cola Company and Yale has convinced me that the world’s future depends on aligning the goals and efforts of business, government and civil society. It is the combination of willing governments, enlightened corporations, activist NGOs, engaged IGOs and motivated academics that generates the required critical mass. No single element of society can do it alone.
Our profession – and the Page Society with its diverse membership — is uniquely positioned to lead this alignment. We can bring our organizations to positions where they can work together. We can lay out a narrative that recognizes today’s challenges as markers on the way to a successful future rather than steps in a continued decline.
In his new book Back to Work: Why We Need smart Government For A Strong Economy, Bill Clinton writes of the Clinton Global Initiative:
Instead of focusing on our differences, we come together to build a world of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities. Instead of making speeches, we focus on taking action on our common challenges, and on keeping score, so that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Whenever possible, we collaborate with both government and the private sector to do things better, faster, and at lower costs.
The Clinton Global Initiative works because it engages all facets of society. And, for those companies involved in the Initiative, it is most often the public affairs function that manages the relationship. This type of positioning gives us great leverage and an ability to improve the condition of mankind while bettering our businesses and advancing our profession.
An engaged, empowered public affairs and communications function not only gives voice to the enterprise, it is a partner in the operation of the enterprise. It ensures an organization’s positions are heard and understood, that its brand is in active contact with all its stakeholder audiences and that its reputation is enhanced by its actions. It also acts as a conscience, it brings in outside perspectives for consideration, and it serves as a convener — a safe place for all areas of the enterprise to express their opinions and together formulate an organizational point of view.
The water stewardship program at Coke was based on the position that our business could not be sustainable unless the communities that surrounded the business were sustainable. This led us to engage with the International Red Cross, Oxfam and local businesses and government in Sudan to begin water relief and infrastructure redevelopment work in Darfur. It also lead to numerous water projects in South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. These efforts all required the public affairs and communications function to partner with our environmental team in developing strategic plans that convinced both the operational management of the company and our independent bottling partners to engage. With management agreement, we sought and received board approval, informed our people and worked with UNDP and USAID to find appropriate clean water projects.
These are the initiatives our profession can identify and move to implementation. These are the narratives of realistic hope. A fresh-water well not only reduces village disease, it improves crop production, drives micro-economic growth and, in the case of Coca-Cola, moves a portion of that disposable income to the purchase of a beverage. It is a virtuous circle that advances all.
For our profession to be recognized at the level we all believe it should, we must identify those areas most central to the DNA of our enterprise, seek partners in our institutions to develop programs in those areas and then join with the appropriate outside organizations to build and deliver those programs. Such action builds the type of leadership platform for our businesses that rises above any stormy sea and, more importantly, takes public discourse to a higher level.
Chief Communications Officer and Special Assistant to the President, Yale University;
Senior Vice President and Director of Public Affairs and Communications, The Coca-Cola Company (Retired)
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