Recruiting practices affect reputation
Public relations and the people function (a.k.a human resources) have significant overlap, because both deal with the employee public.
Public relations is broader because employees constitute only one of the several relevant publics it deals with for the organization, whereas they represent the main and likely sole public that the people function deals with.
Recruiters are a primary point of contact with the organization, for prospective employees and the talent pool. Recruiting practices, and the philosophies that power them, can and do influence the way people perceive the organization.
The impact of recruiting practices on people is all the more relevant, considering that fresh recruits are more likely to be millennials and Generation Zers who share opinions liberally, indiscriminately, and compulsively on social media.
From a communication and reputation-building perspective, every employee of an organization is an unofficial (or official) bearer of its standard in their social networks, with the power to affect an employer’s reputation, even after they have left said employer.
This post details some grating practices favoured by certain unenlightened organizations.
The interviewing process
First, we must define the term “interview”.
It may be thought of as a view or an assessment of fit between two people or entities – where they “question, consult, or evaluate each other”. Despite what many recruiters believe, it is not a unilateral affair. The candidates are evaluating the organization (represented in this instance by the recruiter) as well.
It is tempting for the organization to purchase standardized interview questionnaires from an external vendor. HR managers (here we’ll use the term we dislike — “resources” — as it represents the viewpoint of the corporate cultures we are talking about) may feel this offers consistency in the information sought and recorded. It might even make it easier to mathematically rate interviewees using such a standard format (even though the math usually dissuades many “people-oriented” recruiters from doing such rating).
There are many issues with such standardized questionnaires.
For one, they are too rigid. A true interview must be flexible. Sometimes it must delve into certain aspects of a candidacy more deeply; at other times it must pass over paths of inquiry that are seemingly irrelevant. Certain responses may trigger greater interest and may necessitate deviations and ramifications that are not part of the standardized form.
For another, they can be cracked easily. A reasonable cranium with Internet access can access several standardized questionnaires and can prepare spiffy answers for them.
In our opinion, an organization does not need someone who can tell them exactly what they want to hear. They need someone who can do the job, open up new lines of thought and resultant action, and gels with the organizational culture. If the right fit is achieved, then there is a lesser chance of the employee leaving, and of the organization finding the employee unsuitable to its culture.
Most times, form questionnaires are ineffective in properly assessing a candidate.
We would recommend having two sets of questions:
- Some standard such as the icebreaker and seeking some general background.
- Others that are written specifically for that particular candidate, after the search committee has reviewed their résumé.
The greenhorn interviewer
One flabbergasting practice in some organizations is asking junior recruiters to shortlist executive level senior candidates. It is bad enough that the shortlisting for senior positions is relegated to newbies – because it risks the organization losing out on worthy candidates and on creating a stronger shortlist.
It is worse that junior recruiters are also asked to interview for senior positions.
Would it not show more respect to candidates, and also project a less-unhinged image of the corporation, if senior recruiters were charged with interviewing senior candidates?
It is humiliating and annoying when veterans of many wars and many achievements have to sit through interviews conducted by inexperienced junior recruiters with insufferable delusions of personal grandeur, reading robotically off standardized questionnaires without any consideration for the seniority and experience (not just in an organization but on the larger canvas of life) of such people. Said interviewers may not even have the ability or knowledge to appreciate the situations these veterans have braved.
There is nothing wrong with the junior-ness of recruiters or employees; most people (save privileged kids who parachute in on their parents’ personal connections into cushy managerial positions on their first visit to the office) start out as entry-level junior employees. It is the fact that they don’t have the experience or knowledge to screen and interview senior candidates. Also objectionable is the stench of arrogance radiated by some junior recruiters when interviewing people far more capable and competent than they are (at that point in time, because there is always the prospect of personal and professional improvement with time and experience).
A better practice would be to have a senior recruiter conduct the interview while the junior recruiter observes.
Outsourced interviewing and reference checking
Another peculiar trend is companies outsourcing the interviewing and reference checking process.
Reference checking involves a certain sixth sense, an intuition, to properly assess whether a candidate can be part of the organization in a manner that is beneficial and satisfactory to both parties.
This is best done by an insider, who knows the intricacies, power structures, cracks in the armour, and office politics as only an insider would. An insider is then best qualified to evaluate whether a candidate would be able to survive, thrive and contribute in the realities of the organizational culture.
We don’t deny that there is cost savings and value in outsourcing certain aspects of business operations. But interviewing and checking references should not be two of them.
Past the 2007 stock market crash and the consequent economic crisis, recruiters found themselves in a place of power – because legions of laid-off people were looking for new jobs.
The fires of crises reveal the true nature and character of people, just as fire revealed the truth in Sauron’s One Ring (sorry, we couldn’t resist the Lord of the Rings reference).
Recruiters could not be bothered to acknowledge inquiries, return phone calls, or send courtesy emails. They had a handy reason: they were too busy to be courteous to the large numbers.
Since automation is at an all-time high, it seems unreasonable that emails to candidates could not be programmed to go out at different stages in the recruitment process. Many companies send out notices of regret to unsuccessful candidates – and that is fine.
But the aura of self-importance appears to have persisted to date in many organizational recruiters, who fail to return calls from short-listed candidates for senior positions.
Several former colleagues and friends have been astonished that after having gone through four interviews, lunch and dinner meetings with the team to assess cultural fit, and doing a sample (and free) project for the employer, they wouldn’t hear from the recruiters for as long as three weeks. The candidates had to call repeatedly before an unapologetic recruiter would say nonchalantly that the company had selected another candidate.
The unbelievably good first day
On LinkedIn and other sites, people frequently post photos of the desk of a new employee – complete with a laptop, pens, pencils, branded plastic water bottle, post-its and the like. Comments abound praising the company and its human resources team; and lusting after such a utopian work culture. The current employer is sufficiently buttered up by the new recruit’s enthusiasm and loyalty as demonstrated by said LinkedIn post.
From experience, we can suggest it would be more revealing to look at what comes after this inviting (almost suspiciously sugary) picture of a workstation.
What if the employee is expected to sign over their personal life, privacy and other prospects to this one job? What if the company forces the employee to work 90-hour weeks with no weekends? What if one’s eyesight is assaulted and weakened by long hours in front of computer screens in cramped cubicles? What if health is sacrificed by such unnatural expectations of a human body, mind and spirit?
The old adage holds good: If something looks or sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Many corporations now have new hire e-orientation and e-training. It is most attractive for the HR department. All they have to do is herd unsuspecting hires into a closed room, plonk them in front of computers with headsets, and leave them there for a few days to complete their e-orientation. The software tests them, reports the scores electronically to the HR team, who get to provide quantitative reports to the executive team. And they don’t even have to be in the same room as the abandoned and dazed fresh recruits.
Moving everything online is not the grand panacea to people management. By very definition, human resources requires interaction with humans.
It is convenient to outsource orientation to an external provider. If anything goes wrong, there is someone to point an accusatory finger at. Legal counsel would probably be satisfied.
Many people seem oblivious to the fact that orientation and new-hire onboarding process can influence an organization’s reputation. What does it say about an organization’s attitude toward its people when its HR representatives refuse to have contact with new hires during orientation?
By the way, some of the animation in these e-orientation modules is so ridiculous that early cartoons from the 1920s would be far better. Stick figures moving awkwardly like puppets with broken strings in simulated lunchroom conversations hardly does any favours for the perception of the HR department.
Here’s a radical thought: why not use human beings to talk to human beings? It seemed to have worked for most of human life on this planet, before the appearance of e-orientation over the last 15 odd years. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that maybe, just maybe, humanness still works?
Even in the world of online education, there is still human contact via video, voice, emails and online real-time discussions with the instructor.
We are not advocating against technology. We are railing against this self-congratulatory and misguided view that technology can completely replace human contact where humans are concerned, as also the complete detachment of the HR department from new-hire orientation.
The Verafluenti aperçu
Let recruiting and new hire orientation practices come from a place of compassion and decency. Huge profits and stashes of untold riches in bank vaults does not give organizations the right to discard kindness, courtesy and grace.
Every interaction with publics contributes to an organization’s reputation and character. In recessions and depressions, people may stomach such corporate callousness, out of a desperate need for a paycheck. But at the first sign of a stronger economy, talented people will leave such companies in droves.
Then again, perhaps some organizations simply do not care, because they feel there are enough needy fish in the workforce sea willing to enter the corporate net and become indentured zombies.
This post is for those organizations that have a conscience and appreciate the impact of every organizational practice on its reputation and more importantly on people, families and society.
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This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.
We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Tis the season for corporate halos
It is perhaps the only time of the year when proclitic words briefly enter the mainstream. When else can one encounter ‘tis, ‘twas, ‘twill and ‘twere in such abundance, especially in the phrase ‘tis the season for giving?
From a corporate perspective, ‘tis also the season for donning halos.
As soon as December turns the corner, many companies try to publicize their image as good corporate citizens. On the bandwagon of charity, they churn out charming stories on their websites and Intranets, in employee magazines; and (when the corporate coffers are brimming) print and television commercials, touting how they are helping the destitute.
Engulfed by such a sappy seasonal clutter in corporate and mass media, one sometimes wonders if the sound of trumpets cannot be discerned – being blown flamboyantly and perhaps a little vaingloriously?
The root motive
The motive for, and the process and manner in which charitable work is done, are worth examining. If either is driven by selfishness and a desire for self-aggrandizement, then the spirit of the act is no longer altruistic but exhibitionistic. The fact that money may flow to a needy cause is but a side-effect not the main effect.
True altruism does not require publicity, nor is publicity a reason for it. An organization works in the community because it is the right thing to do and because it is part of their organizational character.
Now, a PR practitioner would argue that communicating the good actions of the company is required to maintain its image in the community. And that would be true. It is indeed important for a business to nurture goodwill in the communities where it operates. It is one of the primary thrusts of public relations – communicating to develop and sustain good relations with an organization’s various publics, of which the community is one.
But building good relations need not always entail a bullhorn.
We are not carping at the community work that companies perform; rather we are curious about the swaggering affectation with which some of them try to extract mileage from it — the patting themselves on the back and labeling themselves good corporate citizens.
And so, in this post, we examine common organizational practices during December and raise some questions for discussion.
Most marketing and PR departments consider it the correct and accepted practice to call up radio stations, television crews, bloggers, and social media boosters, to raise a hue and cry about any charitable work they do.
The idea of doing something with no publicity may be revolting and illogical to them. Conditioned by many a bottom-line-fixated corporate culture, they cogitate incredulously: Why do something when there is no return on investment?
Our answer: Because it is the right thing to do. Because you are first and foremost a human being and a member of an interconnected society, before you are a cog in a corporation or a dropdown tertiary line item in the overhead cost statement.
The funny thing about a good deed done with noble intentions without strutting and clamouring for attention, is that it is talked about anyway. It ends up getting publicity which is led by third-parties who appreciate good work for the community.
Even viewed from a staid marketing perspective, earned publicity is far more credible for reputation than paid or owned publicity.
We just learned in the course of a casual conversation that three generations of a family, that owns a major telecommunications provider, volunteer together at a charity every year. Without pomp or ceremony, they serve food to the homeless and those whose fortunes have withered lately. It is not listed on the business’ website. We were told (not by the business, but by someone in the community) that they do this every year and shirk publicity for it. The experience reportedly grounds them and gives them a spiritual contentment that materialism cannot.
Yet here we are, talking about it appreciatively. And maybe one of our readers will share it in their networks.
This is the power of a good deed done with a true heart in a humble unpretentious manner.
The benevolent ‘forum’ provider
Many a company organizes drives – donations for food banks, charities, shelters and other social causes – in its offices. They believe they are being gracious enough to provide a forum for their employees to open their wallets. Some match employee donations, others don’t. But the company takes the credit for the aggregate donation. After all, isn’t it usually the senior executives who appear in photos holding the unnaturally-oversized facsimile of the corporate-branded cheque?
Does this not sound a tad unethical – to appropriate credit for the donations of individuals — especially when many companies boast the (cut-and-pasted) value of “integrity”?
Contrary to the doctrine that upholds this corporate Christmas practice, do individuals really require an organization’s umbrella under which alone they can be charitable?
Could they not just as easily go directly to the food bank; or even better offer a food hamper to a homeless person they meet on the streets?
People have lives outside their workplaces. They are perfectly capable of volunteering with and donating to causes close to their heart, without being part of a company. There are nonprofits whose aim is to enable such charitable donations. Why cannot employees go straight to them instead of dealing with the middleman?
Dropping items in a donation bin or money in a fundraising jar is convenient. Some can rest satisfied that they have done their bit for the season.
Performing kindnesses firsthand is not as convenient; but it is far more enriching. Serving soup and food at the local kitchen and seeing the guests savour every last bit of warm victuals on a cold wintry night, or gently winning the trust of a trembling rescue dog enough for him or her (they are beings with gender) to creep closer to you, are far more meaningful on a human level – both to the recipient and the giver.
Companies could find a more meaningful way of being of service to the community than providing donation bins and jars for employees and arranging transportation for such donations to charities under the corporate banner.
Divert the ‘bragging’ resources
If a corporation wants to do something good, let that alone be the guiding motivation. Much money, effort and resources are invested in corporate social responsibility (CSR) advertising. Why not divert them to the actual cause? Instead of bragging about what they did, they would actually be doing more for the cause.
Pray forgive the amplified figures, but honestly, where is the logic in spending half a million in advertising a company’s CSR image when it has donated a hundred thousand (of which a significant portion may have come from employees’ personal funds)? Why not donate the 600,000 directly to the cause?
The seasonal guilt trip
When examining corporate practices related to Yuletide philanthropy, one cannot help but observe certain habitudes on the other side of the equation – on the part of nonprofits seeking to raise funds.
Few television-watching eyeballs would have missed those advertisements with wretched images – usually of third-world nations. Are we the only ones who find it exploitative on two fronts – first, making a spectacle of someone’s grief and heartache; second, using that to make people feel guilty about their own better fortune and to compensate by donating money?
We are not advocating ignoring the real anguish and need in many parts of the world. It is the melodramatic crafty parading of such portraits that we find distasteful. Could they not use words to convey the dire circumstances? Or if they subscribe to the mildewed phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, could they not use drawings, illustrations or images that preserve the self-respect and privacy of people in distress?
(By the way, we don’t always agree with the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”. For those without sight, words are priceless, and a million pictures are worthless).
Instead of negative images and emotional blackmail, could they not talk of the positive impact that people’s donations would have – as many nonprofits do in their fundraising advertisements? Why not have messages of positivity instead of abject negativity?
Why always portray people as forlorn victims instead of individuals capable of determining their future if given a leg up?
We are not the only ones who hold this viewpoint. Several nonprofit leaders, advertisers, communicators and just decent citizens have voiced the same concern.
Linda Raftree, co-founder of Regarding Humanity observes that advertisements depicting “hopeless people in poverty” are ineffective in solving the actual issues that charities are seeking to address.
In her own astute words: “They don’t empower or create sustainable change”.
Empowerment of beneficiaries is the vital element for creating meaningful and impactful charity advertisements.
Tom Gibson’s well-crafted article on the subject remarks that people have had enough of guilt-trip advertising. He also notes a turnaround in that “charity advertising is starting to focus on ideas of pride, of love, of growth – all the positive aspects that charitable work can bring.”
Perhaps something for communication professionals in such organizations to consider.
The Verafluenti aperçu
Obsession with metrics
Many business scholars have propagated the viewpoint that if something cannot be measured, it does not merit inclusion as a performance indicator of any sort. This opinion has been applied to corporate citizenship as well.
So some companies count the number of hours that their employees have spent in CSR activities. The aggregate figure is announced in the CSR report, annual report, and other collateral.
Our stance is that the quality of service is far more relevant. Counting the number of hours feverishly may serve as a metric of some sort, but it is meaningless in capturing or getting a sense of the spirit and quality of service rendered. Someone may have loitered around at a charity, playing games on the smartphone and chatting on FaceTime. What meaning would the hours spent by such a character have in the context of service?
This is what is termed a measure of implementation not impact. It tells only what was put out, not whether it had an impact for the cause. And in the aforementioned scenario, the very quality of the implementation is unacceptable.
Why the corporate obsession to convert everything and anything into numbers?
And how do you quantify the unquantifiable?
There are qualities in nature – and hopefully in some humans – that cannot and must not be quantified. Kindness, compassion, love for instance. Would managers tally the number of times the word “love” is said, regardless of whether it is said sarcastically, ironically, deridingly, disinterestedly, or menacingly by vicious sociopaths with silky tongues (for details, one could always pick up a copy of “Snakes in Suits”)?
A foundation of social service
So what can an organization do in terms of charity? We have some thoughts.
- First, let corporate citizenship be a guiding value instead of a nice-to-have. This will have the domino effect of generating a positive effect on society in almost everything that is done. Many companies do this. It would be good for society if more organizations were encompassed by this principle.
- The greatest value that a profit-making establishment can offer charities is the green life blood that flows through its corporate veins – money. Companies have the option of donating independently without egging on their employees to part with their funds. What individuals do with their money – whether they donate it or not – is their personal matter, not the company management’s. And who is to say that the corporate choice of charity to support is aligned with an individual’s preference?
- Companies also can invite applications from employees to support charities or causes close to their hearts. After transparent evaluation based on published criteria, management would decide to donate money to some (or all or as many as reasonably possible) of them.
Why is it seasonal?
It has perpetually confounded us why December alone is considered the season for giving (the media and pop culture are largely responsible for cementing this in the public psyche). The inference is that the other months are not seasons for giving. Come January, and there is no talk of giving. That must be the season of resolutions (most of which are broken by the succeeding month, by when it is the season for Valentines).
Why does there have to be a season for being kind and compassionate? Human goodness must be for all seasons. Imagine the state of society and the world if this were indeed the norm.
Let compassion and helping not be confined to the Christmas spirit; let it be part of the human spirit; and, in the case of this post, the corporate spirit.
Happy Christmas, Hanukkah Sameach and a good new year to our readers, clients, friends and fellow human beings across the world.
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This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.
We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at email@example.com.
A case for decentralizing global communication
What starts small as an adventure between a handful of like-minded professionals can, with the propellant of success, grow quickly into a large entity sprawling first the region, then a country, and finally the globe. And with growth come more revenue, more operating costs and more communication quandaries.
Founders often reminisce nostalgically of a time when communication was as simple as turning around and talking to the small group of people in their modest digs. With expansion, such simple and direct forms of communication are no longer practical or often physically possible – how do you find a space large enough to fit a thousand employees from different countries at the same time on a regular basis?
As an organization becomes global, communication assumes greater complexity and greater importance. No communication, poor communication, or miscommunication can create grave issues for an organization.
Local offices begin to feel increasingly disconnected from the topmost executives at the global level, their envisioned direction for the company and corresponding reasons. By “local”, we mean offices that reside in cities and towns in countries often different from the one housing the global headquarters.
The straight transplant
The knee-jerk reaction is to transplant marketing material, advertisements, communication and PR campaigns in their original form from the head office (often in North America or Europe) to other regional or global offices. This might be the easiest thing to do, and companies may even get by, especially if they are pushing a largely technical product with few cultural complexities.
For services and more intricate products, this approach usually does not work.
Sensibilities of other regions are not always the same as those where the head office is located. It is important to consider the sociocultural and political landscape of the destination. Even a quintessentially American company that enjoys worldwide popularity will have to adapt to respect local mores, when operating in a different country.
Even a lingua franca (that prevails to a reasonable degree) is not an indication of homogeneity.
Consider a country like India. To the uninitiated, it is a homogenous entity where Bollywood, Hindi (the “Indian” language), computer programmers, tech support, and business process outsourcing firms, apply equally across the length and breadth of the varied land and its diverse population.
In reality, it has several hundred languages, thousands of dialects, different cultures, customs and traditions – traveling a few hundred kilometers (depending on where one’s starting point is, of course) will lead one to a completely different people speaking a different language and observing different cultural norms. (Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power is an excellent dissertation on the diversity of India and the unity found in spite of it and because of it.)
Or Europe with its 44 odd countries — each with its distinct history, society, politics and sensitivities. Communication that ignored the historical aspect would risk offending certain nations. What works in Germany may not be transplantable literatim to, say, Poland.
One size or type of communication will not fit all. This is perhaps the most important case in point for localizing communication.
Control of local communication
Many companies are structured such that the management and control of communication rest either at the national or global level. This means someone working at the national or global level decides and controls the messages that are issued to people in local offices.
For instance, digital signage is becoming increasingly popular as a paper-free and instantly-editable means of communicating with internal and external audiences. It works exceedingly well when local offices are given control of the content that shows up on their screens. There is a sense of excitement among audiences who recognize faces and names that appear on the signage. The events, concerns, opportunities are local, which appeal to the local audience.
However, when such a vehicle is controlled at the national or global levels, then the messages become more abstract and less arresting. It is also possible that people mentally switch off and become blind to this expensive vehicle.
A news value that journalists use to evaluate the newsworthiness of a story is “proximity” – does the story hit close to where the audience is? The same can be applied to communication.
Another aspect to consider is the process to manage and make content live.
If there is a circuitous and bureaucratic procedure to get a message designed, approved and then pushed to the signage, then communication practitioners at the local level are disillusioned. When something meant for Victoria, Canada, must be routed through a team in Toronto or New York, with no guarantee of whether it will be treated as important enough for immediate processing, then it poses a problem for local practitioners.
Such a process also affects the speed with which a request from a client (internal or external) can be implemented.
Local communication professionals lose credibility (and face) with their local clients, if every local request is delayed because it has to be routed through the national or global level. There is a window of relevance for any communique. If it is lost, then the message becomes obsolete.
Even worse is the inability of the local professional to promise that the message would even go live, given that national or global management might find it not important enough to merit placement.
And who is to say that the once-too-often slighted local client would not use their personal connections and clout at headquarters to bypass the local communication professional altogether.
In extreme cases, defeated and dejected, the local communication professional may even exclude this vehicle from their communication plans, simply to avoid the beadledom.
Global takeover of local vehicles
Some managers attempt to move a popular local communication vehicle to the national or global level, in hopes of latching on to and replicating its success at a wider level.
Concepts can of course move freely across tiers. However, communication vehicles or products are another story. What works well at the local level does so because it appeals to that particular demographic, because it was conceived, based at, and intended for the local audience.
Simply taking it over and declaring it a national or global communication vehicle does not guarantee its success across different audiences.
Communication vehicles meant for the national or global levels should be conceived at that level, with the larger and more diverse audience in mind. It merits a different mindset, a different set of goals and objectives.
Source credibility and rote forwarding
The issuer of a message has a bearing on how it is received and perceived by an audience, and subsequently on its impact. In communication theory, it is known as source credibility.
In certain large companies, it is not unusual to find people in local offices who are unaware of who their global executives are, simply because it makes no difference to their daily work. But they will certainly know their local management.
So it follows that a message from a senior global executive will make much less headway with a local audience than one from local management.
Practitioners, particularly the ones in local offices, will have observed that global communication often loses impact and audience penetration. The farther away from their milieu the message comes from, the less it resonates with people on the ground. Such messages are seen as wishy-washy airy-fairy stuff that doesn’t matter to people at the local level; or even as corporate “propaganda” (we’ve personally heard it referred to as that). It is not unusual to find local office directors advising their people to simply focus on the job at hand and to safely ignore such messages from “up there”.
Some managers have tried to remedy this problem by asking national executives to relay the same message to their national audiences. In turn, the national managers ask regional and local executives to send it out to their audiences.
In effect, a global message is sent multiple times – often verbatim – to the same audience. Sometimes, the message is simply forwarded, without a cover note or customization, by regional and local managers (who find it an avoidable waste of time and focus). And it is no secret what people think of and do with emails whose subject line features “FW:” and worse “FW:FW:FW:”
The need for an emotional hook
Communication, to be effective, must have some level of emotional appeal. Content coming from the global and national levels usually does not hold such allure for a local audience.
This is why a local communication professional is necessary – to help the local opinion leader or influencer interpret the global message to engage the local populace.
If budgets do not allow the retention of a communication professional in each local office, then the regional or national communication professional would do well to learn (on a continuous basis) the issues, needs and spirit of each local office under their purview. Such intimate knowledge will help immensely in crafting a message that is meaningful and relevant for people in local offices.
The Verafluenti aperçu
The suggestion is not to cut off all ties between the local, regional, national and global levels; or to allow absolute anarchy in local offices. Assuredly there must be a strong link and reasonable oversight. Local communication must doubtless be aligned with regional, national and global business priorities.
The global management team would decide on the organizational goals and the related messages to be communicated to audiences.
How such messages are communicated to audiences at different levels is best left to those who intimately understand these levels.
For example, if a global priority were a commitment to a strong health and safety culture, a local office may decide to communicate this in different ways, some of which might be:
- Holding pre-field-work huddles to evaluate hazards and figure out ways to mitigate risks; and conducting post-field-work debriefs to share lessons which can help plan safer work.
- Distributing safety equipment that goes above the legally stipulated minimum, thereby demonstrating (by action) the company’s desire to set higher standards for their people’s safety.
- Organizing mock drills.
- Offering company-paid training in safety techniques to people.
Such ground-level actions drive the message home far better than flowery catch-phrases and gilt-framed commitment statements.
Leeway for local content
There are things, events, people, news and content that are undeniably local in nature. They would be completely irrelevant to national or global audiences: Now on the strength of this thesis, to find that such content is not aligned with national or global priorities, and to decree them unacceptable, is counterproductive.
Understandably, local needs and wants will be different from the national or global counterparts. That does not make them null and void. In fact, content that speaks to such needs and wants will win the favour and attention of their audiences.
Again, this calls for tailoring global and national content to make sense at the local level.
Decentralization for efficiency
Decentralizing the approval process will expedite the journey from inception to execution, and help local communication professionals to earn the respect of their clients.
It will also remove unnecessary workload from national and global management, whose time would be better spent catering to the needs of their corresponding tiers, instead of handling approval of local office content.
If the right people have been hired at all levels, then management would feel comfortable leaving decisions in the safe and capable hands of professionals functioning at those levels.
Let bright minds localize global messages
It is irrational (and bad for business and morale) for communication directors in New York, London, Paris, Sydney and Toronto (among others) to believe they know what would work best for local audiences in faraway cities in different countries.
It is difficult for executives at the global level to be fully aware of what happens on the ground at the local level. It is unreasonable to expect or require them to do so. Their charge is to helm the corporate ship at more aggregate levels.
Fortunately, bright minds burn anywhere – in the towns and countryside just as much as in metropolises.
The solution is simply to use the intelligence and sway at each level appropriately. Let the people who understand the lay of the land determine how best to localize communication so it is penetrating and effective.
A federalist analogy
In some respects, a global organization is not unlike a federation: It has a central government and a reporting structure stretching down into countries, regions, cities and towns to ensure good management and attainment of the union’s overall aspirations.
The centre guides the union, while the states manage their own affairs independently as they see fit to align with the larger goals of the federation.
Global organizations can draw on this concept.
Managed properly and intelligently, global messages can be localized effectively to ensure people at the all levels are informed, engaged and spirited.
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This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.
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Is consumerist sustainability unsustainable?
It would seem impossible to visit a corporate website without seeing the perfunctory corporate sustainability report or one of its many variants.
Corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility (often referred to by its acronym — CSR), sustainability, sustainable development, corporate sustainability – there is a horde of terms in use. Many have come, peaked and receded while others are enjoying their moment at the top of the corporate mind and lingo.
Today it is sustainability that holds the public’s interest. Soon this moniker may be dropped in favour of something new. The term itself may not be sustainable. But that, time alone will tell, for we are no soothsayers.
This article is not an exposition on the scientific facets of ecological sustainability. We are not environmental scientists and therefore are unqualified to remark on the science. Our interest is in an examination of what the world today is trying to sustain, and whether those choices are worthy of being sustained. We try to follow certain paths to their logical destinations and evaluate which of those destinations would be best for all life (including human). Any mention of right and wrong is not moralistic in nature, but is a logical viewing of action and consequence.
Square one: Sustainability
From several environmentally and socially conscious people, we have gleaned several definitions of sustainability. Most of them embrace three components – economic, social, and environment — visually characterized as pillars, legs of a stool, or as partly overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.
We also looked at pioneers in the field like Herman Daly whose 1990 definition of environmental sustainability has since been condensed as “the rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely; if they cannot be continued indefinitely then they are not sustainable.”
A layperson’s definition of sustainability, stripped of the environmental science livery, as in the Oxford dictionaries, is “the ability (of anything) to be maintained at a certain rate or level”.
So, in very simple terms (and at Verafluenti, we do like simplicity), sustainability may be thought of as the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely.
Add development into the mix
Then came sustainable development.
As with most other concepts, this one too has a couple of hundred definitions floating about. It may have had some early seedlings in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962, The Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth report which many believe had one of the first recorded uses of the term “sustainable” in the modern sense, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature‘s 1980 world conservation strategy.
Still, the most common definition was proposed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Much of the corporate world’s standard definition of environmental sustainability has become equated with “sustainable development”. And development, as the profit-maximizing-motive would hold, is economic growth and the generation of wealth, which in turn is supposed to make people’s lives more comfortable, more leisurely, healthier and happier — except that history and the present state of the world hardly bear out this paradisiacal image.
Development itself is often unequal and unbalanced — with certain countries, certain areas, certain industries and certain people benefiting more than others.
According to the UN’s 2015 Human Development Report, heavy costs to society can accrue “in the form of forced labour, child labour and human trafficking.” Development work can then “violate human rights, threaten freedom and shatter dignity.”
What is being developed?
If it is development that is being held up as the entity worthy of worship and sustenance, then it is worth examining the forms that development takes.
Is it deforestation, disturbing the ecological balance, irritating (and sometimes eradicating) the resident flora and fauna, for the purpose of building delightfully-marketed (and flimsily constructed with a very large cookie cutter) houses for humans to live in, and erecting concrete high-rise labyrinths in which to conduct more development work?
At least in North America, the developers purposefully set residential communities at great distances from workplaces. Said humans then are encouraged to drive their gas-chugging but eminently prestigious SUVs (a marketing concoction that still does not make sense to us) between work and home. While toxic fume- and waste- spouting industries should of course be physically removed from residences to minimize injury to life, limb and health of humans; one wonders about the rationale of artificially creating this distance for service industries, which also bring with it stress, the constant race against time, road rage, more fuel consumption, traffic, gridlocks and other happy corollaries.
More often than not, it would seem development involves a large component of pillage, construction, installation, and bending nature – unnaturally — to serve human will and wants.
From reverence to decadence
It is only humans who believe everything on the planet – and in the universe – is human-centric. It is not so. Scientists have concluded that if something as relatively small as the bee were to go extinct, life on the planet would be threatened as a whole. In contrast, if human beings were to go extinct, planet earth would flourish. Humans are the only species unwilling to live in balance with nature. As it turns out, we’re more of an avoidable nuisance than an unavoidable essential.
From the perspective of everything that is not of the human race, the talking intelligent biped, with the ability to contrive and wield machines, must come across as marauding viruses — a viewpoint articulated dramatically and memorably by Agent Smith in The Matrix; and expressed by Steve Cutts in his animated short Man.
Wasn’t it Friedrich Nietzsche who opined that “the earth has a skin and that skin has diseases; one of its diseases is called man.”?
We venture to say that one of the illnesses of man is the desire to thoughtlessly ravage nature, produce and consume excessively and without control.
If everything superficial were expunged from the scenario, and only what truly matters remained, would any of the following truly matter?
- The stock market (which is more or less a glorified and sanctioned global gambling den).
- The price of oil and gas.
- The greed for precious metals (purely for accumulation and for engendering envy).
- Buying and showing off the latest smartphone (where the manufacturers incessantly churn out new models with alarming frequency).
- The insatiable lust for mobile phone apps to do everything except wipe one’s hallowed bottom (soon perhaps, software developers will devise an app for this too).
- Playing the idiot-creating and accident-provoking Pokemon Go games.
- Wasting hours watching content fit for less-than-morons on cable TV (reality shows as detached from reality as possible, meaningless game and talent shows, and the endless cop and detective fare).
- Living in the largest house on the block. Only humans claim far more space than is reasonably necessary for an individual or family. Goaded on by shows like MTV Cribs (which celebrates ridiculously humongous houses of celebrities, in which entire villages could live), people are persistently and quietly hypnotized into believing they “need” to emulate these huge homes to prop up their insecure egos. Such people soon realize that nothing is ever enough to satisfy their insecurities. Why, even Citizen Kane found his palatial mansion lonely and meaningless at the end of his very wealthy days. But the true leaders, whose billions come as a by-product of hard work and common sense, live in modest yet comfortable dwellings. Warren Buffett reportedly conducted his initial business out of his bedroom with a land line and phone directory, and continues to live in the same home he purchased in 1958.
- Owning a fleet of cars (with models of unborn years marketed in the preceding year – an illogical yet unquestioned marketing practice; really, how can a 2017 model be up for sale in mid 2016?), private jets and yachts?
- Amassing more money than is necessary for three generations to live in extravagance.
Even a lifetime (or more accurately a “lie” time) spent inconsequentially in a cubicle, breathing in and contributing to recycled air and regurgitated words and stale thoughts, would not really matter.
There was a simpler time when humans lived in harmony with nature. The First Nations of Canada and the Native Americans in present-day United States lived thus – in reverence and gratitude to nature. In such cultures, the concept of property rarely existed. There is an ancient First Nations proverb: “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
They honoured the spirit of the trees, the forests and even the animals they had to slay for food, thanking them before consuming them.
Humans used only what they needed from nature. They lived true to their nature – enjoying the open skies; the mountains, plains and valleys; the seas, lakes and rills — engaged in an unintentional and continual meditation in oneness with the elements.
Being fewer in number, they also did not cause irreparable damage to the planet.
The current state of the world is far different from this idyllic past. Way past the milestone for reasonably comfortable living, today people wallow in gluttonous consumption; and are constantly encouraged and goaded to consume even more by marketers and advertisers.
With unprecedented consumption of necessary and mostly unnecessary products, there rises the spectre of waste. In bygone days, much of the waste was fully biodegradable, in that they returned to the earth and replenished it. These were the days when people carried their own jute bags for groceries (the modern call for people to recycle shopping bags is then strangely rendered outmoded by a practice that predated it); when leaves and twine would serve as wrapping (a practice that still survives to some extent in the English staple of fish-and-chips wrapped in past-prime newspaper, although some city councils are reportedly trying to illegalize it); when in many countries the backyard garden or pit served as natural compost maker.
But then commercial plastic was synthesized circa 1907 when Leo Baekland invented bakelite and also came up with the word “plastics”. We are neither experts nor even students of organic chemistry, but the generally-accepted view is that petroleum-based plastic bottles take several centuries to completely degrade and PET bottles apparently don’t do so at all.
Now waste — that is a byproduct of the consumption that is the engine for development — becomes a crippling problem.
People are consuming not what they need, but what they want and do not need – and increasingly what they are told they should want – and in humongous quantities. Today, even the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development is in peril, because it is no longer development that meets “the needs” that is being considered, but unrestrained selfish “wants”.
‘Bluewashing’ and ‘greenwashing’
Launched by Kofi Annan in 1999, the UN Global Compact, proposes ten principles for a sustainable global economy which it encourages corporations to voluntarily adhere to. It is often defined as the UN’s flagship initiative for “social and ecological corporate citizenship”. A fine idea in theory (if one were to ignore the fact that here too, economics dilutes and often restricts true environmentalism), but one which has been manipulated by corporations.
Many commit in letter but not in spirit or action. This is often negatively referred to as “bluewashing”.
In fact, at the Public Eye on the Global Compact in 2007, leading non-governmental organizations criticized the compact, and appealed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, to fundamentally rethink the “accord” with big business.
They also raised concerns about the admittance of corporations with a record of adverse environmental, social and human consequences caused by their operations. Aftab Alam Khan, head of trade policies, at ActionAid, opined that as long as the Global Compact accepted members like a certain British mining giant, despite protests from civil society, “the accord is not worth the paper it is written on”.
And alongside bluewashing is “greenwashing”, which U.S.-based watchdog CorpWatch defines as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”
It is a corporation falsely boosting its eco-credentials – in plain language, it is plain lying.
In many corporations, sustainability is – we won’t sugarcoat this — a lie. It resides ephemerally only in the annual CSR or sustainability or corporate citizenship reports – those affairs purportedly printed on 40 to 100 per cent recycled paper.
To use a crude mathematical analogy: If a corporation’s operations cause 100 units of damage, then hosting a rambunctious fanfare over putting back one unit in compensation hardly seems sufficient or ethical.
When one sees the grand commitment statements heralded, published and celebrated by companies that rip apart the earth, pollute the environment unconscionably, and distress employees in poisonous work cultures, the logical mind wonders about the tragic desecration of the term “sustainability”.
Bean counting firms, who point out tax havens and counsel larcenous techniques to already rich individuals and corporations, also publish annual sustainability and community involvement reports. Of course, few talk about or question why many such companies themselves never open their corporate moneybags; they simply “provide a platform” for underpaid overworked employees to empty their ever-so-light and nearly-empty wallets. This travesty of supporting the community is punctuated by messages from benevolent and beatific senior management “encouraging” employees to open “their hearts and wallets”. But for a select few organizations (with their hearts still beating), many don’t match employee donations. Such matching means that if the employees contribute $5000 to a cause, then the organization puts in another $5000 from the corporate coffers to cut a total cheque of $10,000 in donation. This is usually done to a set maximum value.
There are billion-dollar-turnover companies that willingly reimburse employees for exorbitantly-priced prime downtown parking, but refuse to pay the relatively low price of a monthly transit pass, thereby blatantly encouraging gas-consumption, fuel emissions and pollution. They flagrantly put their money in favour of an environment-unfriendly practice. They too publish sustainability reports.
At this rate, we can soon expect sustainability reports from drug cartels, crime syndicates, human traffickers, and warmongerers! Because after all, their trades are being continued at a certain rate.
For organizations and individuals with a social conscience, there is little need to trumpet the sustainability of their activities. Everything they do will have a social reason behind it.
The Verafluenti aperçu
It seems then that the question we really need to ask is not whether development is sustainable, but whether the development itself is right.
In other words, does the development being considered deserve to be sustained?
One tends to wonder whether even the so-called modernity is sustainable, and more significantly, whether it should be sustained.
Sustainable development is hardly what the world needs. It is right action to achieve the right goals for nature (of which humans are a part). Sustaining wrong action via unnatural and ill-contrived means ends in toxicity for people and the planet.
Why continue to do something wrong? Because it creates more money and fortifies balance sheets and widens board room smiles? This is the economic additive that weakens an unfettered commitment to the environment. These are crippled excuses (not to be dignified even as reasons) for having gone down the wrong fork in the road about a century ago. Anything that is against nature cannot be continued indefinitely without consequence – to the physical, mental and emotional health of humans; the wellbeing of the environment and the planet that vessels human life.
Much of the western world is erected on consumerism, with other adoringly-imitative nations following suit. When consumption becomes the foundation and philosophy for everything that branches forth, then every aspect of society is made to support that philosophy. This line of thinking has humanity heading in a perilous direction. Why should anyone’s existence or peace of mind be dependent on someone else’s desire to consume? As the highest form of evolution (at least on this planet allegedly), shouldn’t humans concern themselves about loftier ideals than consumption, excretion, propagation and cremation?
Perhaps the planet would benefit from an environmentalist model of society and resultant government. There are already many political parties founded on this idea — Sweden’s Miljöpartiet, the Green Environmental Party, even entered the Riksdag after a breakthrough in 1988; the L’Ecologie les Verts party in France; the Green Party in England, Wales, the Scottish Greens and Northern Ireland; the Green Party of Canada; Green Party US, etc.
Unfortunately most green parties do not win enough seats for a formidable presence in legislation and execution.
Warning signals from nature
The tsunamis, the tornadoes, the hurricanes (for which meteorologists are running out of names), and the earthquakes are nature’s rejoinder to the callous rape of the planet. And they are awe-inspiring reminders of the immense power of nature that renders humankind’s attempts to build the-tallest-this and the-largest-that and the-underwater-restaurant and the snowscape-in-the-desert miniscule and pathetic in comparison.
Hectoring nature is not only unsustainable, it is also fatally dangerous. No corporation can withstand nature’s blows.
Bears and cougars attack people because people have encroached on their natural habitat through expanding urbanization. Don’t humans do the same when their homes and countries are threatened with invasion? Apart from a few domesticated species, most of the flora and fauna kingdoms likely do not view human beings as trustworthy. Honestly, most humans haven’t earned it.
Now, there are monks who meditate in the thick of deep forests, and remain unharmed by the resident wildlife, because animals sense their intent of metta (loving kindness). This should demonstrate that animals are not evil bloodthirsty creatures waiting to pounce unprovoked on humans.
Children watch cartoons like FernGully: The Last Rainforest in early school years, while their parents work for the same type of deforesting-for-urbanization characters portrayed as villains. The parents can hardly be blamed when an entire generation has been brainwashed into believing that the current state of the world is the correct state of the world.
They have been conditioned to be happy so long as some company gives them a paycheck to foot their picket-fenced mortgages, credit card bills and other financial obligations; and dinner produced by environment-unfriendly practices is on the table; and senseless cable fare is beamed into their minds. The pace of modern consumerist life has left them too tired to think about the larger responsibility and the fate of humanity.
One planet not enough
Some scientists believe that if the seven billion people on earth consume at the same level as an average American, the world will need four and a half planets. And yet as spiritual master Jaggi Vasudev says “you only have half a planet left.”
Humans cannot sustain life on this planet. But instead of trying to fix problems they have created here, they are now scouring outer space for the next planet to plunder. Suddenly, the scenario painted in a movie like Avatar does not seem so far-fetched.
Is this truly behaviour that deserves to be sustained?
Instead of developing new models of exorbitantly-priced technology, why not explore the inner space of human consciousness to fix the misconceptions and ill-considered myopic ideas that have brought about this precipitous stage in human history?
What if the physical and material aspects were held reasonably constant, after all human beings have achieved a certain reasonable standard of life?
Why not move from wanton unbridled consumerism to a sensible and responsible use of nature’s resources which would also involve giving back to nature.
Instead of sustainable development, perhaps it is responsibility and sensibility that are more worthy principles for human life to be led by.
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Lessons in communication from the street
It is said there is no university and no teacher better than life itself. Word!
Some of the most striking and creative lessons in communication come from the street.
The street: This is the frontline, where your ideas are brutally tested by the pavement, the indifference of the time-pressed layperson, and the concurrent pull of multiple competing distractions. It is an unforgiving trial ground where ideas and people either soar or crash-and-burn; it separates the wheat from the chaff.
The ‘good citizen’ sales pitch
I remember a firsthand example of a brilliant sales tactic employed by a homeless person on High Street. Twenty years later, his pitch is still poignant in memory.
“Don’t have a home. Don’t have no money. Can’t find me no job. Don’t want to steal. Don’t want to sell drugs. All I need is a happy meal to keep me happy. Just $1.99 is all it takes to keep me from a life of crime. Can you help me out?”
The pitch made students smile and stop in their tracks to talk to the chap, if nothing else. On most days, he managed to wrest enough meals out of his audience to be and look well-fed!
I suspect he took his act to different parts of the city, when he felt one area had been saturated. He may well have been a farmer, leaving land fallow so it would recover its fertility for a later planting and abundant harvest. From a communication management angle, this is not unlike scheduling the message intelligently.
Recently I came upon a lesson in communication from downtown Calgary. These words of clarity and honesty doused in humour were written in chalk on the front of a building in disrepair, right opposite a train station.
Without the well-intentioned but usually paralyzing censorship of the corporate marketing, PR and legal squad, these words had an instant impact, drawing at times a smile, a chuckle, a gasp or an oh-no-you-did-not-just-say-that look.
These handwritten messages are probably much closer to the cave art and writings of yore, which are among the first forms of printed communication (“print” is reportedly derived from the Old French word “preindre” associated with the Latin root “premere” meaning “to press” and create an impression).
It is comforting and marvelous to see that, despite hard glass touch screens, social media and virtual reality, the simple friction of a hand-wielded instrument on a surface is still powerful and effective. This basic and primeval form of communication has persisted through the 200,000 odd years that humans have existed on the planet –connecting us with our cave-dwelling ancestors!
I wonder if the same would be said of computers, iPhones and tablets in centuries to come.
Street theatre and wordless pictorials
There is a form of theatre in rural India that performs in street corners and alleys — with little or no props, effects or ambience. The performers rely purely on histrionics, raw sound, dance, and songs — rendered on the most basic instruments not requiring electric inputs or amps – to deliver social messages. In many instances, they break the fifth wall to involve the audiences. It is an art form used to raise awareness of socio-political issues and to instigate change. They work because of the real-life situations they refer to, the vernacular dialect they use, and the music of the street that are familiar to and endear them to their audiences.
These performers often risk life and limb while highlighting truths that are uncomfortable to political autocrats – a consequence which testifies to the effectiveness of their communication.
Many cities in India are using street art to offer a physical and psychological facelift to residents, with conceptual images conveying a recommended action.
On pavements crisscrossing university greens and outside lunch halls and libraries, creative student campaigners have scrawled witty messages in chalk to hook the downward gaze of student pedestrians. Of course this was before smartphones assaulted the senses and turned people into dumb screen-staring robots.
In fact, on many an occasion, such communication may not even require words. A symbol or iconic image and the choice of colours can drive a message hard.
For instance, in several European cities, Internet Samaritans offer free open wi-fi access to all and sundry. In the opening years of this century, such availability was communicated by “warchalking”, the practice of drawing symbols in chalk to advertise free hotspots. Now “apps” have steamrolled this quaint nicety as well.
In South America, street art emerged as the primary form of expressing protest, led by the murals of Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco.
Britain’s reclusive artist Banksy has spray-painted walls in Barcelona, Bristol, Detroit, Paris San Francisco and Vienna. Starting with graffiti, he progressed to canvas and sculpture, always provoking people to think. (For more information on creative art by Banksy and others, please visit www.artsy.net/artist/banksy)
The Polish duo Etam Cru create large striking colourful surrealist murals that draw on Eastern European mysticism and folkloric symbolism, and are often infused with irony, sarcasm and humour.
In all such instances, heightened true creativity overcomes the limitations of a miniscule budget.
The Verafluenti aperçu
Corporations and its marketing and PR departments can learn much from such examples from the street.
Truth, wit and honesty always win attention. Stale corporate directives clothed in repulsive jargon punctuated with unfunny jokes make no impact, because they are dishonest, pretentious, ambiguous and boring.
Most people won’t remember the so-called core values of all the places they worked at, because, let’s face it, most of them are the same with a few minor differences.
Most people won’t remember the goals and priorities of all their employers, because honestly, they make no difference to most employees who are more concerned about getting a pay cheque in time and paying their bills.
But almost everyone will remember an offbeat, honest, courageous-if-foolhardy email sent to all staff by some millennial. I can recall a few such instances that have since passed into corporate legend, including a hapless new employee’s global email invitation to lunch, frequent all-staff emails about food items stolen from the fridge, and personalized mugs that mysteriously moved from the floor of their owners to distant corners of the corporate universe.
Endearing traits of street communiqués
Why is it that these stay in one’s memory when the “meeting-the-changing-needs-of-our-clients” pomposity doesn’t?
One, they are witty.
Two, they are visceral and as such evoke a visceral (and thereby real) reaction from the audience.
Three, they usually subvert the staid (and artificial) façade of the corporate sensibilities. And secretly, employees love it when the powers-that-be are given a good rattling. Magicians often employ this technique – picking a known authority figure as a volunteer and then tricking the heck out of them, to rousing applause.
The suggestion is not to encourage mutiny or subversion of corporate priorities or sensibilities. Merely that, it is all right to poke fun at yourselves occasionally. It makes senior executives seem more human. And humour, used discreetly and tastefully, is an icebreaker that dismantles your audience’s barriers, making them more receptive to your messages.
Four, they make one think. And thinking is an important first step on the journey to impact. We will talk about impact versus implementation measures in another post. But for now, let us just say that impact is what the intelligent communication practitioner desires from a campaign or communiqué.
Five, they are usually not limited by rigid corporate templates, many of which suck the soul and joy out of life.
Street communication is of course prone to the practical limitations of the medium, and the medium itself. But such limitations are physical; they do not hinder the creative spirit. For example, the wall which forms the canvas of a communiqué stipulates physical restrictions of height, width, texture, exposure to the elements etc. But it does not restrict the creativity of content that is born within these physical limitations.
This is a significant point of difference between street communiqués and ineffective templated corporate messages.
Good content moves cross-media
There is also the possibility of content in one medium being promoted in other media.
For instance, when chalk-written messages are photographed and propagated via social media, then what was print becomes electronic and social.
But what motivated the sharing and the crossing over into other media is good thought-provoking content.
It is perfectly feasible for corporations to adopt this idea – encouraging creative expression in one format, and then sharing it in others for a wider reach. However poor content garbed in inaccessible argot will fail in any medium. This is where I would differ from the McLuhian contention that “the medium is the message”, particularly in this era. (By the way, the Alberta-born Marshall McLuhan, is a personal favourite for his uncannily accurate vision of the future of media, and the delightful zany pun-filled language he uses.)
The message must be clear, well-crafted and engaging. No medium can truly make poor content effective.
Technology does not constitute content
Many are the companies that tout (with furiously-wagging tails and panting tongues) technology as the holy grail of corporate efficiency. And by technology, they largely mean computer software — manifesting as programs and applications – and related hardware.
They quote, commission and distribute studies, surveys and polls, mongering fear that executives who don’t automate every aspect of their business with technology had best prepare a dirge for the early and certain demise of their enterprise.
But one wonders: If technology is the grand panacea and the promised path to corporate paradise, then what happened to the dot coms that were founded on technology? Why did they go bust? Did these technology enterprises not have enough technology?
I view technology as an enabler not the protagonist in the organizational tale. To place it front and centre would be rather batty and ill-conceived.
It would be celebrating the tools of carpentry while forgetting the carpenter whose craft creates articles of utility and aesthetics. It would be like deifying the tubes of oil paint, the paintbrushes and the easel, while erasing the very artist whose creativity produces unique affecting pieces.
Again: Technology cannot make poor content effective.
For those who feel this sounds good in theory, but is not practical for your organizational systems and processes, then as a parting thought, may I highlight this line from the downtown Calgary chalkboard: “The simplest truths often encounter the sternest resistance.”
And isn’t that the deep and simple truth!
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White space: An essential in communication and life
Not an inch of space is to be left unused. Text and images should cover: the page, billboard, print canvas, web space, and all too often, a PowerPoint slide. Voices and sounds should constantly blare the corporate message during every second of radio messages. Graphics, animation and visual effects must occupy every second of TV and web communication.
This is the directive communication practitioners oftentimes receive. Of course, one cannot really blame the folk upstairs. Much like everyone else, they are making decisions using what they know.
Looking at it purely from a financial angle, it might appear logical to conclude that empty space has no return. After all, empty bank and investment accounts usually do not lead to better returns.
Fortunately and aesthetically, the rules of finance do not hold much sway in design.
Any studied practitioner will know – what experience will have corroborated – that PR and communication campaigns need white space and silence to be effective.
Some draw a distinction between “active” and “passive” white space — active being the white space created intentionally for balance, organization and emphasis; and passive the white space that occurs naturally such as the space left out at the borders or in between content. We acknowledge and embrace both.
May we also remark that white space is not always “white”. The term merely signifies absence of content in a space that may be infused with a single colour, or a concoction of colours.
Increasingly intrusive barrage
Many executives and managers may believe the way to get messages across is to inundate audiences or publics with them.
Eager to please them, the PR managers (who in such instances function more as technicians than as strategists) try to create new distribution vehicles.
Such a spiral has resulted in several unique (and admittedly creative) formats.
At one point, pre-recorded voicemail messages from senior executives would greet unsuspecting employees when they picked up the phone intending to reach a business client or quite simply do what they were hired to do.
The new-message-indicating red light would refuse to die till one had sat through the 60-120 seconds of artificial-sounding spiel. Few people (save the ones in their probationary period) listened to or even heard (there is a difference) these messages, making them a waste of effort and time for the executives, the PR practitioners and the intended audience.
When the notice board is covered in years’ worth of unmanaged layers of stapled-over posters, the practitioners invest in digital signage, applauding the corporation and themselves for adopting a more “sustainable” medium (more on this in another Verafluenti post, coming shortly).
Novelty can pique audience interest for a while. But soon attention wanes and the “new” medium also lands on par with other media that have come before.
Unless good content with good design is issued, addition of new formats will not go very far.
When executives complain that “people aren’t getting our message”, the distraught PR practitioners put up digital screens in the elevators, the pantries, the lunchrooms, the coffee machine (yes, even the dispenser of your hallowed daily Joe is not immune), and the washrooms.
The day may not be far when messages are beamed in virtual reality into the hitherto sacrosanct peace of one’s bathroom stall. Picture yourself being educated in the corporate core values while easing your bowels. Quite the unholy congress, n’est-ce pas?
The guiding idea is seemingly to not allow the poor audience a moment’s peace.
Unfortunately for management, this may elicit an undesirable response – of disgust and irritation – causing audiences to tune out, or worse, reject messages. This is similar to the “recall and reject” of annoyingly memorable commercials. Please read the Verafluenti aperçu in our post on “The 100 Ideas That Changed Advertising” for more.
People need their personal space, personal time and white space – which, in communication terms, would translate into relief from the relentless message blitz.
To manage the intensity of message dissemination, campaigns use techniques like pulsing and flighting. While this is significant and helpful in creating a white space relative to an organization’s presence in the larger message dissemination scape, it still does not constitute white space or silence within an individual communiqué.
Jarring overload within a frame
White space is required in communication and PR campaigns. It must also be present within each communication piece.
But as above, so below.
The mindset espoused by senior executives influences all aspects of organizational culture, including the design of each printed piece, electronic poster or digital screen.
A single digital screen can simultaneously contain scrolling news bars, weather information, popup sports scores, Flash animations, corporate news and more.
A critical look at the TV screen during a newscast will bear this out. In addition to the above-mentioned elements, most news programs also have a background in constant motion and animation, creating more visual confusion.
Communication and media appear to be propelled by a fear of stillness, white space and silence. It is almost as though they would lose their audiences (and, by the extension of financial motive, their grip on their wallets and purses) if they stopped clanking their pots and pans for even a second.
Attention is constantly diluted, and the eye persistently tired out by so much activity. It is conceivable that, in addition to the dismal quality of TV content and its disproportionately extortionist cost, the lack of a sane space may be pushing more people to cut the cable TV cord.
It’s the corporate template
Even seasoned graphic designers have been known to stomach poor design in the name of corporate templates (even though they may be ill-designed by people with no inkling of the discipline).
Well-intentioned practitioners who point out the violation of design principles are met with defeated smiles and an acceptance of “the way things are done here”.
Suggesting the implementation of good design and communication principles is sometimes seen as not toeing the company line and as not being a team player.
There is also no dearth of inexperienced, unqualified, yet supremely cocky, self-appointed brand police who will parrot “on brand” and “off brand” without stopping to examine whether the brand itself is founded on valid fundamentals. Such characters do more harm to the organization – knowingly or unknowingly.
Sadly, the specters of bill payment and mortgages can have a depressing effect on the advocacy of proven tenets.
The Verafluenti aperçu
White space and silence offer contrast for the eye and for the ear. They provide a point of reference, which allows the audience to concentrate on the message. In the absence of white space and silence, it becomes difficult to discern where one ends and another begins, in the endless tirade of corporate and commercial messaging.
This example of complete clutter demonstrates how the lack of white space can be jarring and straining to the eye, while also ensuring that no message is retained.
This website for car leasing in the United Kingdom, not content with visual clutter (and web design whose existence is unbelievable in this day and age), also adds syrupy songs on autoplay. Audio clutter on top of visual chaos for a supposedly authentic business!
It is also a reason we keep our Verafluenti design clean and simple. It is why we don’t have auto-rotating picture galleries, Flash intros, fancily animated menus, or sticky scrollbars on our website.
White space helps to make visual messages clearer, more inviting and more accessible – which means more people will absorb and understand the message. There will then be real impact, not just dissemination and exposure.
Senior executives are the most powerful cultural influencers in an organization. As such, they can play a role in championing more effective communication practices – such as the use of white space for better design and for better campaigns.
For this, a degree of exposure to the relevant discipline would be helpful. This can be gained through personal study of leading publications in the field, by enrolling in an executive education course, retaining a consultant (such as Verafluenti) to conduct a seminar, or simply (and very cost-effectively) by asking their inhouse PR practitioners to run a session on design principles for senior managers.
The value of emptiness
White space is essential not just for effective and aesthetic graphic design, but also for other facets of life. The most beautiful musical compositions are the ones that contain silence within them.
Emptiness is not a vice to be weeded out.
More than the walls and the roof of a house, it is the empty space within that makes it livable.
It is the emptiness inside a vessel that makes it a useful container.
It is the emptiness that was mathematically captured as “zero” – by Aryabhatta circa the fifth century CE and formally by Brahmagupta in the seventh century CE — that adds value to a number.
Emptiness is openness — to springs of creativity, knowledge from unknown fountains, and virgin world-changing thoughts.
It is also conjectured that the universe was conceived in silence.
The silence of the mind – or the state of no mind – is of course called meditation.
Medical studies and brain imaging sessions have shown that a quiet meditative state is more focused, clear, creative and taps into the brain’s massive unused potential.
If it can do so much for an individual human being, why can it not find its (very logical) way into design, the views of senior management, design of communiqués, and the practices of PR managers?
Too much to ask … or simply too commonsensical?
“100 Ideas That Changed Advertising”
Advertising is always of interest to any PR or communication management practitioner. The discipline allows for immense creativity which has manifested itself in several memorable advertisements over the decades. The creative allure apart, from a PR or communication management perspective, there has always been some overlap with advertising and marketing.
This is little wonder as PR is often referred to as the boundary spanning function, meaning it has to maintain contact, work closely and align its efforts with several other business departments including marketing, people and legal counsel.
PR and advertising campaigns involve similar elements of creativity, graphic design, visual appeal, and a call-to-action, the main difference being that PR aims to build relations and not just make a sale. Both tend to be persuasive in nature, but with different goals. The good relations and goodwill that PR is capable of building can often create a conducive environment for a commercial transaction to take place. But sales are not the main thrust of PR. For more background, please read our post titled “PR, marketing, advertising: Making sense of the confusing mélange”.
This interest is what led us to “100 Ideas That Changed Advertising” by Simon Veksner, Creative Director at DDB Sydney, published in 2015 by Lawrence King, London.
It lists, in chronological sequence, the development of commercials through the ages:
- The humble poster used by ancient Egyptians and found on walls in the volcanic-ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii; and which continue to this day. In fact in many parts of India, entire walls are sprayed with campaign propaganda during election season.
- William Caxton printing one of the first leaflets in 1477 offering “Pyes of Salisbury … to any man spiritual or temporal to buy”. The “pyes” referred to clerical rules rather than savoury pastries. Leaflets, handbills or flyers endure due to their directness and immediacy.
- The Boston News-Letter in 1704 being the first newspaper to carry advertising – the first ad offered a reward for the capture of a thief!
- James Gordon Bennett’s (publisher of the New York Herald from 1835 to 1867) innovation to change ads every day just like the news, prior to which companies often ran the same ad for a year.
- The 1842 opening of the first American ad agency Volney B. Palmer in Philadelphia.
- The founding of the first full service agencies by James White in London in 1800; with N. W. Ayer & Son being the first in the United States in 1869.
- Catalogues which can be traced back to 1498 when publisher Aldus Manutius released a catalogue of books for sale in Venice.
- Topical ads that relate to a current event or time of the year. One of the longest-running topical ad campaigns is the association of Coke with Christmas. Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola appeared at Christmastime, featuring Santa as a kind, jolly, rotund man in a red suit drinking a Coke. Before this, there had been no set depiction of St. Nick – he was sometimes tall, thin or elf-life. Today when people think of Santa, they think of the image created for him in Coca-Cola’s advertising.
- Product placement, which began with paid mention for products in 19th century novels, the Lever Brothers placing their soap products in some of the earliest movies in the 1890s, its growing popularity in the 1980s, such as Ray Ban sunglasses featured in Tom Cruise’s Top Gun (1986), which generated a 40 per cent increase in sales.
- The growth of slogans, called endlines or straplines in the UK, or taglines in the United States. The earliest advertising slogan may have been for Ivory soap in 1879: “99 and 4/100% pure”. It is revealing to learn that McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” slogan, was in fact created by a German ad agency, Heye & Partner, as “ich liebe es”.
- Cinema advertising starting as early as 1897. The first known cinema ad featured men in kilts dancing in front of a banner advertising Dewar’s Scotch whisky. Advertisers soon got leading directors to produce visceral atmospheric ads such as Michael Mann helming Lucky Star, the 2002 slick cinema ad for Mercedes, that also innovated by screening during the movie trailer sequence and not the ads.
- Creative and memorable copy, some of which was written by people who later achieved fame, such as the slogan for a TV ad for cream cakes: “Naughty. But nice.” which was written by Salman Rushdie.
- The rise of stock photography as an industry in its own right, from Robertstock, founded in 1920, to the now-merged Corbis and Getty Images, which between them have 180 million images, 500,000 video clips, and 50,000 hours of film footage.
- The infamous and misguided 1921 prediction by a group of investors: “The wireless body has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” And yet, today, 95 per cent of the world’s population listens to the radio.
- The first radio advertisement broadcast in 1921 by WEAF in New York – a ten-minute talk for a real-estate firm, for which the station charged $50.
- The birth of jingles in the 1920s during the early years of commercial radio. They used simple repetitive nursery-rhyme-like messages that not only communicated a product’s name and message, but also stuck in people’s heads. When they became clichéd, agencies turned to pop music in the 1980s such as Pepsi’s use of Michael Jackson, Nike’s licensing of The Beatles’ song “Revolution” in 1987, Microsoft’s licensing of the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up”, Chevrolet’s use of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock”. Today brands like Intel, Audi and Philips (or an old favourite, Nokia) are using “sonic brand triggers” to bookend their communication.
- The airing of the first TV commercial in the United States on July 1, 1941, during a baseball game, for Bulova watches (“America runs on Bulova time”), which cost $9. Compare this with Superbowl ads which in 2012 cost $3.5 million apiece.
- The special event ads produced for Superbowl in the United States and the X-Factor finals in the UK to avail of their unnaturally high viewership. The trend-setter for event ads was the legendary Apple “1984” commercial directed by Ridley Scott.
- The development for advertising of creative effects later used in mainstream cinema. E.g. Michel Gondry’s “bullet time” effect for a 1998 Smirnoff commercial was used in The Matrix.
- The ad industry’s Creative Revolution of the 1960s, highlighted by DDB founder Bill Bernbach’s essay titled “Manifesto for the Creative Revolution” urging that “good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling”. DDB’s ads used humour, honesty, wit and a daringly self-deprecating tone as in the Avis campaign: “Avis is only No. 2 … so we try harder”.
- The political attack ad, which rose to prominence in the 1960s and have continued to become a staple and controversial tool of modern political campaigning. The most famous of these, the “Daisy Girl”, was produced for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaigning.
- The increase in ads people are exposed to from 500 a day in the 1970s to 5000 a day today, the resultant fatigue and marketers’ efforts to stand out by being more creative or outrageous. E.g. Red Bull spending $30 million to fund Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space, which was watched live by 8 million viewers on YouTube.
- Ghost ads made for awards not clients. The most notorious example concerns a Kia campaign by Moma Propaganda of São Paulo, Brazil, which won two 2011 Cannes Lions. The ads had never run and were created by the agency without the client’s knowledge.
- Online advertising overtaking print advertising in 2012, with an estimated annual U.S. revenue of $39.5 billion.
- Interactive advertising, which allows audiences to control the commercial in some way. Examples include the 2001 interactive “Subservient Chicken” ad by Crispin, Porter + Bogusky for Burger King; and Lynx’s use of augmented reality to let consumers “interact with angels” in London’s Victoria Station.
The book makes some poignant observations:
- As a service industry to business, advertising has changed in response to changes in the business vista – globalization, increasing technological sophistication and professionalization among the influential trends.
- Advertising reflects society. It usually does not change it (although we would beg to differ in the influence that advertising can wield on expected social norms). This is why social historians find old ads so interesting. As an example, the wave of liberation of the 1960s was reflected in advertising as it opened up to every race, class and gender.
- For the most part, advertising is a mass-market exercise in terms of exposure. Although marketers try to isolate media and vehicles frequented by their target market, they cannot prevent the possibility of exposure to people outside this primary target group. So commercials have to appeal to a mass audience. For this reason, advertising cannot run too far ahead of the popular taste: “It is an enthusiastic co-opter rather than initiator of artistic styles.” While art movements like surrealism have deeply influenced the industry, advertising has not of its own influenced art.
The Verafluenti aperçu
By the author’s own admission, the book is American and British centric, arguing that while advertising exists in other parts of the world, the epicenter is still New York.
We would observe that, while the headquarters of most major advertising companies may be in New York or London, advertising itself has no nationality. Advertising may have achieved world prominence from its American and European strongholds. But surely it cannot be forgotten that advertising is a marketing tool. Marketing is a business discipline with the purpose of selling a product or service for an exchange of value. Such a transaction is the basis of commerce, which has happened everywhere humans have existed. Therefore we may safely surmise that advertising in some shape or form has existed in all societies.
As a general thought (unrelated to this book), to assume that advertising, PR and communication management all originated in the 240-year-old (as of this writing) United States, and were non-existent in 5000-year-old cultures is erroneous and myopic.
Advertising is also becoming increasingly invasive, such as the unwelcome ads placed – repeatedly — in the middle of YouTube videos. Watching Katy Perry’s perfume ad in the middle of a Buddhist discourse can be both jarring and incongruous.
When considering Internet content, one cannot but help wonder how many gigabytes are taken up by advertising versus actual programming.
In most media, viewers have no choice but to sit through commercials. Of course one can skip channels or hit the mute button – but that does little to recapture the time spent (wasted, some would say) on commercials. According to TV Week, a one-hour segment on broadcast television had about 14:30 minutes of commercials, with the figure even higher for cable channels.
YouTube allows viewers to skip most ads after five seconds, but non-skippable in-stream ads force viewers to endure the whole ad (ironically, these ads have higher recorded abandonment rates).
The wealthy have the option of paying more for commercial-free premium channels.
All this comes across a bit like a hostage and ransom situation.
Compared to the 1980s and 1990s, at least in North America, the overall quality of advertisements seems to have dropped, to the point of treating audiences like morons who have to be spoonfed the buying decision.
There are still awe-inspiring commercials, but in our humble opinion, the proportion of poor commercials far outweighs the good ones.
For every British Airways campaign — from the 1989 epic Face ad to its more recent emotive short-filmesque Fuelled by Love — there is HTC’s Hold the Crown rap video farce, PS3’s creepy Baby commercial, Dodd’s Furniture’s pathetic take on Star Trek with its poor graphics and even worse make-up, Quiznos’ grating Spongemonkeys fiasco, and Canada’s very own Oliver Jewellery disaster.
Recall and reject
This also highlights the process where an ad is so bad that it is memorable enough for the audience to associate the ad with the brand; but leads to the audience actively rejecting purchase of that brand out of disgust and irritation.
The Ohio Ricart car dealership ads from the mid 1990s are still rancid in memory as are the more recent TV commercials for Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) Truth in Advertising, and Dollarsdirect.ca.
Manipulating societal norms
The stereotypes of men and women in commercials are also cause for concern. If ads are to be believed, then all men are Neanderthals who constantly barbecue, swim in tankards of beer, eat unhealthy food, watch video games and sports, and have low IQs; while women are obsessed with furniture, perfumes, chocolates, clothes and shoes and constantly act selfishly expecting to (and, in the ads, usually do) get away with devilish acts wearing the most angelic smiles.
Advertisers may argue this is just creative license. But this could also be viewed under the microscope of agenda-setting theory at which point such depictions may have the power to influence how people expect they should behave, and soon such behaviour becomes the accepted cultural norms.
In fact, today companies like McDonald’s, Unliver and Volkswagen are reportedly using neuromarketing – originally developed for medical purposes – to scan consumers’ brains to see what they are feeling and thinking when viewing ads. Marketers use this information to refine advertising messages to best affect consumers to behave in their desired way. This veers into the dangerous territory of manipulation.
One cannot help wonder whether the right use (from a human viewpoint) for such brain imaging technology is to enable advertising – with its object of selling.
The hard questions
A harder examination – an uncomfortable one for such a cash cow – is whether the goal of advertising itself is beneficial for humanity, and whether this has changed for the better or the worse with time. Does advertising have volition of its own, independent of manufacturers of products, services and positions? Advertising can be creative and strategic, but can it do so outside the confines of sales targets and marketing dictates?
Can it be truly ethical — in its choice of clients, companies and products it represents; in walking the fine line between entertainment and distortion of product features and benefits?
Merely some thoughts and questions that effervesced after reading this very interesting and visually well-laid out book.
* * *
Resource, capital, acquisition or human?
To the best of our observation, few people like being called names.
This article represents some questions and our bafflement at certain naming conventions in the corporate world. It also fulfills a pledge we made in our first post to touch on our distaste for a certain designation.
Employees are among the most important publics for an organization. They are its brand ambassadors.
How they talk about the organization in their personal and professional circles determines to a significant extent its reputation. This may be seen as the “informal” reputation which can be starkly different from what the organization portrays in its promotional material and on its websites which are often liberally littered with praise from all quarters; placement in the top 25, 50 or 100 employer of the year awards; and slick videos of deliriously happy employees.
Often, the informal reputation is what prospective employees would take heed of; because these are the stories that paint a truer picture of the corporate culture and working conditions.
Few are the people who would not run a prospective employer through glassdoor.com, ratemyemployer.ca, JobAdviser.com.au (in Australia), Kununu.com (for the German-speaking audience), or jobcrowd.com (in the U.K.)
If an organization wishes to attract and retain the right people who believe in what the organization is doing and who will stay with the organization for the long haul, would it not be in its best interest to keep employees happy and motivated?
It is surprising how – unintentionally and perhaps ignorantly – many organizations refer to their employees.
Just a ‘resource’
The expression most popularly used to describe the field of dealing with an organization’s employees is “human resources”.
Reportedly, economist John Commons used the term “human resource” in The Distribution of Wealth published in 1893. We wonder if it might perhaps have been a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, when arguably human beings, the environment and the planet suffered the most.
It seems to have gained popularity in the early 20th century when workers came to be seen as a capital asset. It implies that human beings are commodities or inputs into a production process.
The usage has become so embedded in corporate culture that people have forgotten to question it and have acquiesced into edifying it as the standard, with professional associations, degrees and certificates sprouting around it.
Even the general system theory views an organization as a system, accepting and processing inputs into output, and fitted with a feedback loop for improvement. However it must not be forgotten that one of the four attributes of the system is the internal relationship among its objects. Another is the existence of the system in an interdependent environment where the elements of the system affect each other.
Even less than a resource
If a concept from the world of Hogwarts were to cross over into our Muggle world, then an unforgivable curse might be calling employees “capital”.
But for the benevolent concession of qualifying it with the prefix “human”, for which some gratitude is due, people would have been on the same standing as office space, copiers, machines and company vehicles.
Extending this naming convention to the wider world, one could refer to spouses as “capital resources” or “revenue generators” or “cash flow production engines”; and children as “long-term investments” or “old age security” or (depending on the outlook) as “bad debt”!
People are also sometimes called “acquisition” but redeemed somewhat by the addition of the word “talent”, which at least recognizes an individual’s special aptitude or natural ability. Still, if we were faced with a choice between “people recruiter” and “talent acquisition specialist”, we would fall in with the former in a quarter of a heartbeat. “Acquisition” reeks of inanimation and possession. We feel it is better suited to the purchase or procurement of companies, stocks, real estate and the like than it is to the hiring of an individual.
Even the International Labour Organization has adopted the “labour is not a commodity” principle.
Some corporations may argue that such phraseology is the done thing. They believe that corporations are about making a profit, and in this process, employees are indeed a resource or a form of capital.
Granted it may be what many are doing. But does that necessarily make it the right thing to do – not legally (because as has been demonstrated time and again, there are more loopholes in law than oases of clarity) but using a sense of propriety that is inherent to all human beings?
Ignoring a gender
Another moniker that falls on ears as nails on a chalkboard is “manpower”.
We don’t mean to be overly picky or politically correct — as when George Carlin humorously wondered whether a he-man should be called an “it-person”, the man in the moon the “person in the moon”, and David Letterman “David Letterperson” (while wholeheartedly advocating the correctness of “spokesperson” in place of spokesman, “chairperson” in place of chairman, and “humankind” in place of mankind).
But from a realistic common-sense viewpoint, does this not willfully ignore the existence of an entire gender? Is it not then utterly obsolete since the Dark Ages?
Women have always performed critical functions for humanity. They may have been neither acknowledged nor recognized, but that speaks more to the powers-that-were than to the undeniable contributions of women to business and to life in general.
From our humble perspective, running a family itself is like managing a diverse multi-generational organization. Mothers, wives and partners are no less than CEOs of one of society’s most important basal units – the family. How then does “manpower” still rear its head? And how do companies flaunt this in their rubric to this day in so-called developed nations?
Among the wise
There are enlightened organizations that treat their employees as “creative and social beings in a productive enterprise” – something many traditionalist executives may derisively baulk at.
Such organizations call the function looking after its employees “human development” or simply and accurately “people”. And they have not done too shabbily by way of profits.
A certain company called Google comes to mind. It revolutionized Internet search as also organizational culture when it rebranded its HR department as “people operations”. They consider their people the champions of its colorful culture.
This lays out flat the argument that concerns about nomenclature are pointless group-hugging exercises with no effect on financial performance.
When common-sense trumps pretentious nonsense, the people of the “people” function would hire other people (who also happen to be skilled professionals); manage their needs ethically and humanly; and help them play their part in achieving organizational goals.
Fewer people would leave (reducing hiring and training costs). More people would be happy to stay and work for the organization. And on the way out (if they decide to leave for reasons that life throws up), they would feel obliged and impelled to interview, train and install a worthy successor so that work could continue in as uninterrupted a manner as possible.
They would leave on good terms, and they would continue to spread goodwill about their former employer in their circles.
The Verafluenti aperçu
This is not a commentary on the stellar and invaluable work that many friends and professionals perform in this people management function (whatever it may be called in different organizations). Professionals with integrity will try to perform according to their high personal standards wherever they go.
It is a question about the choice of terminology and the domino effect of subsequences: It influences the policies and approach to employees, which affects relations with them, which determines employee satisfaction and turnover, which impacts an organization’s reputation and thereby its ability to draw and keep good people, which in turn bears upon its efficiency, effectiveness and capacity to remain in business.
The way in which an organization addresses its employees makes a difference to internal relations.
Would individuals prefer to be called “resources”, “capital” or “people”?
From an organizational welfare point of view, how can management reasonably expect “resources” or “capital” – deemed as non-sentient objects — to serve as its champions?
Words, labels and titles are not insignificant. They serve as building blocks for good relations and for action. Why else would love poems incite passion and a fiery speech a revolution?
Could it be (and has it not been for decades) time to weed out “resources” and “capital” when referring to living, breathing, thinking individuals?
This post is certainly for the people, by the people, and of the people.
The dance of PR: Helping organizations lead and be led
It was 1994 and a group of us had gathered nervously in the Ohio Student Union for our introduction to the stately world of ballroom dancing.
Our instructor, an accomplished Latin artiste, prefaced the course with a memorable address.
Dance is not unlike life, he said.
Communication is a vital part of dancing.
Partners communicate through touch, pressure, look and other nonverbal cues. One has to be receptive and responsive to one’s partner. When one moves forward, the other must move backward; when one moves left, the other must move right. Be like the yin and the yang – separate yet interconnected and creating a whole.
Through it all, the dancers must be able to build trust in each other – particularly for a movement like the dip where (traditionally) the female dancer must trust that her partner will not let her fall on her head!
Over two quarters, as we made it through the waltz, fox-trot, swing and cha cha, I learned much that I came to appreciate more in later life.
I gathered that dance was art, technique, communication and trust rolled into one. When they all come together, it makes for a flawless, beautiful, flowing poesy.
With the benefit of hindsight, I find this surprisingly similar to the world of public relations (a.k.a. communication management).
PR too requires knowledge of the techniques and the correct way to execute them.
It is decidedly an art — as any practitioner trying to convince a group of technocrats about the necessity of a PR campaign for cultural change will have learned. Outside the workplace, it remains an art practiced admirably by adorable little tykes who charm their way into maternal hearts and resultantly to another episode of SpongeBob Squarepants (the animated series that parodies many themes from the world of grownups, including work life, employee morale and management – such as this corporate training video).
It requires clear unequivocal communication between all parties involved. When messages are shrouded in intentional ambiguity, the quality of the relationship suffers.
And it intends to build relationships based on trust. Ethical and considerate actions done consistently will instill confidence in the organization. Eventually this becomes the foundation for a reputation.
In many ways then, PR is a dance.
The lopsided dance
What is missing from this analogy in many organizations is the desire or willingness to adjust to their publics’ needs and aspirations. Many organizations want publics to change their views and behavior to suit the organizations’ stances; and they expect PR to bring this about.
Adjustment is expected only of the publics and is not seen as a responsibility or rational step for the organization.
The exceptions are when negative public opinion threatens profits, share prices, shareholder dividends or their very existence; or when the law requires compliance by way of changes to organizational policies or practices.
William Vanderbilt is infamous for his utterance “the public be damned” when they don’t agree with the organization’s views and actions or dare question them.
If senior managers are inclined to this sentiment, then as opined in Manager’s Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, they are “managing in the wrong century”.
This makes the organization an inadequate dance partner and a poor dancer as a whole.
Dancing with blinkers
Many traditionalists view public relations as an afterthought, as a support function that only comes into play after all the decisions have been made in a boardroom that was never accessible to the PR practitioners.
Such management calls PR in to “get our story out there”.
PR’s sole reason for existence then is to get the senior executives’ photographs in media; write speeches; churn out news releases by the hundreds (most of which are not newsworthy and end up in the trash can); produce annual reports, sustainability reports, brochures, and employee newsletters.
The rational person wonders if it would not have been more beneficial for the senior executives, and for the organization as a whole, if the senior PR practitioners were involved in making those decisions.
Why not invite senior PR practitioners to participate in decision-making, instead of relegating them to be the grunt people only called in to hawk the story that someone else wrote?
They would then benefit from a deeper understanding of the business rationale for decisions and be able to better communicate and advocate them to the relevant publics.
Why not allow PR practitioners to “co-create the story” instead of just having them “get the story out there”?
Dancing with blinkers on cannot be intelligent. It limits and embarrasses both the dancer and the partner. For an audience, watching such a dance would be agonizing.
PR can help management dance better.
The Verafluenti aperçu
Given the right support from an enlightened management, communication practitioners have the ability to be the eyes and ears of the organization – to keep a pulse on the organization’s publics, and to identify the need and opportunity for adaptation and change.
Such change cannot be expected just of the publics. The excellent organization must be willing to change its own position, policies and even the business it is in, in response to its publics’ goals and concerns.
As an organization, why not lead and allow to be led?
After all, it is a dance where both partners must be able to influence the other. No one wants to be the stiff bloke mired in the clumsy finger-clicking routine, forcing his partner to dance around him, and eventually to choose to dance with a more sensitive and responsive partner.
PR is a dance where positions are constantly changing. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. The excellent organization would enfold this view, and well … enjoy a fine dance!