How PR Can Bridge The Purpose Paradox

May 11, 2022

The increasing demand for all companies to have a diverse, often complex, and metric-driven ESG strategy has created a new and uncomfortable dynamic for PR and Communications professionals.

As ‘Purpose’increasingly masquerades as a catch-all for business in the 21st Century, itwill be the PR advisors who must work to ensure that today’s companiesand business leaders do not let reality become a victim of blind of ambition.

Risky Business

Without a doubt, this decade will be categorised by the definitive shift fromshareholder to stakeholder capitalism.

It’s a term widely adopted after much focus from Klaus Schwab, ExecutiveChairman of the World Economic Forum, to describe the need forcompanies to expressly seek long-term value creation by taking intoaccount the needs of all their stakeholders, and society at large, it seemsas though the monumental swell in public scrutiny of company behaviourhas forced the expectation for a stakeholder capitalist ethos on allbusinesses, whether or not it is their express intention or goal.

When you add in the increasingly divisive way in which ideas, people,businesses and politicians, and even science is discussed in media andacross social media since 2020, all companies should operate with theexpectation that they have to face a never-before-seen level of complexity,diversity, opportunity and scrutiny to every decision they make.

In this new world order, companies of all sectors and size must expresslyacknowledge the impact of their work beyond the financial returns, in orderto leave their communities, ecosystems and people better off than everbefore. And while this sounds utopian for society, it has can create adystopian pressure on business leaders to succeed beyond the quality andintegrity of their product/service, and to deliver comprehensive communityengagement programmes, holistic employee wellbeing tools, and planet-saving initiatives that those who came before them have failed toappreciate.

This is also particularly challenging for businesses that are listed orventure-backed, where shareholders and investors expect their own valuesto be reflected in the dividends. For those of us in PR and Communications,however, I believe the scrutiny and pressure of the ESG agenda should beviewed differently.

A Purpose Paradox

I recently came across the term Purpose Paradox, which has put a name toa trend that many of us have witnessed.

Like any paradox, the term encapsulates the widening gap between well-intentioned commitments to ESG, and the truly ‘purposeful’ actions,investment, skills and stomach required to deliver upon them. As the“purpose pressure” rises, legislative scrutiny increases, and cancel cultureruns amok, social and economic turmoil intensifies, and the threat of bothfuture pandemics and climate catastrophe loom large, maybe manycompanies should be forgiven for trying to focus on ‘the job at hand’.

That being said, PR and Communications professionals must play a centralrole in the need for a reputation-enhancing, multidisciplinary approach todecision making for both commercial and societal success in the future.

Actions Speak Louder then Words

The longest standing misnomer with PR is that we’re the people to ‘spin’some information or decision into a positive story.

But, as PRovoke Media’s founder Paul Holmes is quoted as saying, "PR isabout how organizations behave, not what they say".

In an operating environment where companies have an expressrequirement to serve consumers, partners, suppliers, investors and allother stakeholders across the B2B, B2C and B2E spectrum, there is noroom for margin for guess work in what all of these stakeholders expect.The accountability that this creates, when captured, interpreted andshared with business leaders, creates conversation and feedbackopportunities that should be viewed as an asset to the integrity andauthenticity that every business craves.

Looking more broadly at reports from across the globe which suggest thattrust in institutions is long in decline, it’s again time for PR andCommunications team to put down the microphone, and instead reach forthe mirrors and microscopes to ensure that decision-making, and notgrandstanding, delivers the action - which then makes for a great story.

In this way, the pressure for more sustainable, stakeholder-focusedcompanies puts awareness, understanding and interpretation back on theboard room table. But for the many more PR and Communications teamswho sit at the tail end of decision making, it may present a larger, ethicalchallenge around how and what we should communicate about our clients’ambitions that may lack action.

By Colm Woods

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