Most executives I speak to believe their organizations could do a better job communicating with their customers, shareholders, talent or just with each other. All too often, however, C-suite professionals respond to corporate communications the same way that Gone With the Wind’s spirited, wily heroine Scarlett O’Hara did whenever her actions conflicted with her beliefs—be it evading the Union Army, killing an army deserter and would-be rapist, or raising the money to pay for the taxes on Tara—declaring, “I can’t think about that now. I’ll think about it later. After all, all tomorrow is another day.”
Scarlett possesses the same qualities as many of today’s most admired business leaders; brash, intuitive rather than book smart, entrepreneurial with a head for figures, she never hesitates to exploit whatever opportunity arises to reach her end goal. It is her willingness to do whatever is necessary that separates her from the sedate, class-based, manners-driven society that represents the antebellum South—and allow her and her family to not only survive the hunger, devastation and terror of the Civil War, but thrive during the Reconstruction period. At the same time, Scarlett is as much in denial about who she truly is and her misplaced obsession with Ashley Wilkes as is the entire Confederacy about the “peculiar institution” known as slavery.
The failure or success of your organization’s communications strategy boils down to just one thing: are you who you say you are?
Even as Scarlett dismisses the niceties and self-sacrifices expected of wealthy young belles and has little patience for the physical constraints imposed upon her freedom, her inability to recognize that she is not and never will be a “great lady,” the way her mother or Melanie Wilkes are, is nearly her undoing and ultimately costs her what she belatedly realizes she most wants—Rhett Butler.
Yet when you strip away the glamorous backdrop, the expensive branding campaign, the fancy logo design, dressing the set with sexy adjectives such as “innovative, cutting edge, best-in-class” or focusing your communications department’s energies on pulling together a social media calendar, or deploying the latest technologies so that your customers or staff can read your latest message on any and all mobile platforms, the failure or success of your organization’s communications strategy boils down to just one thing: authenticity.
Are You Who You Say You Are?
To answer that question requires your willingness and the willingness of the other core decision makers in your organization to be completely honest with themselves and each other about your company’s strengths and weaknesses, what you have to offer in the marketplace and how you are unique. It also requires that executives be willing to devote enough time to have such a conversation and then be willing to act on whatever results from that discussion (e.g. do you change your goals or business model to reflect who you really are or do you as a company change in order to meet those established goals?) And if you are going to have to change or transform your company, what must change and how are you going to achieve that change? Do you have the right people in place to make that change? How much time will it take to implement change?
Most of us find it hard enough to be this self-aware as individuals; and find it even harder to make changes in our own lives even if ultimately such a change will be to our benefit. To ask companies to do the same takes openness, trust and true courage among its C-suite. Given this, it is entirely understandable why so many executives put off having conversations about proactive communications at their organization—it is also why most companies feel that while their communications outreach can be more effective, they don’t always act on that feeling.
Tomorrow Always Comes
Scarlett O’Hara may not be the most obvious role model when it comes to executive communications. And at a time when the meaning of the Confederacy and its ramifications for Americans of all races and political and religious beliefs is making front page news, she may not even be the most appropriate one. But few literary characters are at once so uniquely authentic and so self-deluded as Margaret Mitchell’s deeply flawed, deeply admired protagonist, a fascinating and frustrating characteristic I encounter all too often when working with professional services entities, including ironically, communications agencies themselves. When confronted with facing herself and the situation as it actually was, Scarlett’s first inclination was to duck the issue until another day. It is my hope that companies do not continue doing the same when it comes to tackling corporate communications but find the courage and the commitment to look at themselves squarely in the mirror and embrace who they truly are. Fiddle-dee-dee indeed.