By Karyn Munsie, Brand & Communications Leader, Australian Unity and Commtract supporter, recaps our recent Melbourne event.
With a provocative topic like ‘Is Business Bad’, it was always going to be a wide-ranging and lively panel discussion with a group of Commtractors in Melbourne recently.
The discussion on the night, ably moderated by the AFR’s Patrick Durkin, ranged from whether a social licence to operate can be codified; to the impact of the Royal Commission into misconduct in banking, superannuation and financial services; to how business can re-engage with the community, and more. But the question that gave me most pause for thought was whether corporate affairs professionals need to take some accountability for enabling the shocking behaviour that has emerged from the Hayne Royal Commission.
While I think it’s stretching it to place blame, watching the hearings has provided an opportunity to reflect on trust in business and the role of corporate affairs. It’s also reinforced for me that the confidence (and courage) to speak truth to power is an essential skill.
While many in the community see the profession as a “dark art” involving spin and deception, that is not the corporate affairs I know and never has been. And I can thankfully say that I’ve rarely worked with anyone who thought it was.
I can also say that corporate affairs is no longer about merely communicating the decisions made by others, but about ensuring businesses understand the implications of those decisions for different stakeholders and influencing to achieve a balanced outcome. While the risk department should always have been a great ally for corporate affairs, I see these areas working even closer together in the future as Boards increasingly recognise that reputation management deserves greater attention. Discussions that I expect to become more common at the Board table include whether a company can and should set a risk appetite for reputation; how reputation risk is measured and monitored; how more so-called qualitative KPIs can play a role in protecting and enhancing reputation; and the role of the Board and individual directors in public discourse.
One of my key reflections in the current environment of low trust has been on the role of leadership. Having spent time recently working in the US, it was eye opening to see the overt role that business leaders play in issues from climate change to gun laws to diversity and inclusion. The general view is that if it matters to your employees and customers, then in matters to the corporation. While business in Australia has pleasingly become more vocal on a range of issues including diversity, many are still reluctant to take a stand on other topics and play a more purposeful role in society.
The reality is, however, that leaders no longer have the luxury of simply doing a good technical job. As I said at the panel discussion, my pet peeve is the labelling of skills such as ability to communicate as “soft” – such a misnomer, as there’s nothing soft about them at all.
Companies and leaders who are willing to participate in the public debate on issues that matter to their organisations and communities, who can articulate the difficult trade-offs their businesses face and be transparent about both the good and the bad, are more likely to prosper. For corporate affairs, that means (amongst other things) helping craft a compelling narrative underpinned by data insights; building relationships that are more than transactional; and creating frameworks that align to strategy and generate long term value.
Of course rebuilding trust won’t be simple. The City of London has done interesting work with community panels and established what they call the CIVIC principles: Competence & skills; Integrity; Value to society; Interest in others, and Clear communications. While it would be easy to dismiss them as a statement of the bleedingly obvious, they do provide an interesting framework.
I’m reminded of the words of GM’s CEO Mary Barra, who took to the company’s prescriptive 10 page dress code with a hatchet to symbolise the cultural changes she wanted to drive. The code was changed to just two words: dress appropriately. Similarly, although I’ll double the word count, what does business need to do to rebuild trust? Do the right thing. While I’m clearly over-simplifying and there are times a two word policy won’t suffice, it doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Commtract hosted this closed panel event on September 12th 2018. Patrick Durkin moderated our expert panel of communications specialists, including Karyn Munsie, Dugald Murray, Jen Sharpe and Jeremy Griffith, who gave their verdict and advice around the theme of ‘is business bad’?