Actions make your words matter more

Global CEO Aedhmar Hynes reflects on the lesson that actions and words work better together, as either alone can lose impact.

Global CEO Aedhmar Hynes reflects on the lesson that actions and words work better together, as either alone can lose impact.

Many years ago, one of our clients faced one of the worst situations imaginable for a company – a large-scale workplace shooting. In the midst of those dark days, one memory has always stood out for me. The first actions of that company’s CEO weren’t to draft a statement of condolence for the victims or to hold a press conference from afar. Instead, he quietly flew 5,000 miles to the site of the incident to be with the victims’ families and colleagues. It was only after that meeting that he began to discuss what statement he should make to the media and the public.

Our role today

I was reflecting on that recently, when thinking about our role as communicators today. We are so often asked what’s the best way to communicate something, or what an executive should say to address a particular challenge. We often turn that request around: Our best counsel is to help them determine what they should do about the situation first, rather than what they say.

If it seems counter-intuitive that we should counsel that clients not communicate, consider that almost everything about how stakeholders perceive a brand is related to how a company behaves and lives up to its purpose. It doesn’t matter whether that client is marketing a new product, or dealing with a crisis: If a company doesn’t act in alignment with its values and purpose, what it says won’t matter.

Act in line with values

We are at our best as communicators when we create and shape action, not just words. The most effective communication today engages stakeholders around actions that in turn create conversations. When based on actions, the stories we tell as communicators are authentic. They relate to something tangible, and demonstrate that the company is in tune with and responsive to its stakeholders.

Brands putting actions before words

Fake news and hate speech concerns many organisations, as their brands might be associated with it through digital advertising. Vodafone has taken action, with an aggressive and intensive new approach to whitelist only those sites that it believes to be safe for its advertising content. Through this effort, Vodafone will take steps to ensure its branding efforts don’t support fake news or hate speech, and have given other brands an example to follow.

Lots of companies will say the right things about advancing the cause of pay equality and gender equity. Schneider Electric has put action before words with an aggressive global program, as part of the United Nations HeForShe Movement. The company, one of our clients, has conducted internal audits and set aside funding to achieve pay equity. In the process, it became a HeForShe Corporate Impact Champion.

And two years ago, Salesforce made headlines when the State of Indiana was ready to pass legislation that would have affected LGBT people’s access to business services, and removed any local protections of those rights. The largest technology employer in Indiana, Salesforce is a strong supporter of LGBT rights. But the company didn’t just talk about its opposition to the proposed law.

Salesforce made it known that it would cancel plans for expansion in the state, not allow its employees to take business trips there, and that it would even offer its employees in the state relocation packages if they wanted to move out. The company didn’t relent until the prohibition on local ordinances was removed, allowing it to remain in Indiana while also remaining aligned with its purpose and values.

Action and communication as one

The combination of action and communication enables a purpose-driven brand to drive change, and to turn its stakeholders into advocates. That can become one of the most powerful assets a purpose-driven company can have.

By the same token, when stakeholders feel a company they believe in has let them down, they don’t simply walk away. They can become stakeholder activists working against your brand.

Activists or advocates?

The growth of activism was a principal topic at the Page Society conference I attended this spring. To the top communications professionals there, activism ranks as one of the top challenges we and our clients face. A failure to meet expectations can make an activist out of a customer, an investor, even an employee – and as we’ve seen, activists can cost companies business and their CEOs pay or, in some cases, their jobs.

Put simply: Act-then-speak creates advocates; speaking without action creates activists. And we’ve seen many examples of what happens when talk comes before action – in the airline industry’s treatment of passengers, in pharmaceutical pricing, in the “frat boy” culture of many tech startups. All of them have seen stakeholders become activists in negative ways, impacting reputation, sales, market value, and in some cases reshaping entire executive suites.

So when an executive comes to the communications team wanting to say more about diversity, or protecting the environment, or being customer-centric, say no.

First, help do something more. Then we can talk about it. 

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