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Conscience of the company – or skeptic-in-chief?

BY Leonardo Barilari

Conscience of the company - or skeptic-in-chief? Which is the ultimate role for the communication professional?

It was several weeks ago when I saw yet another piece where the writer said that the role of a corporate communication professional is to be “the conscience of the company.” 

I’ve always despised this point of view.  

It's not because I think that organizations shouldn’t have a conscience. But this stance both encourages communication pros to approach the inconsistencies of corporate behavior from their own moral standpoint rather than from an aligned commitment to the organization's well being.

This is not to say that communicators shouldn’t challenge, or more precisely, question their leaders and clients. But the stance, or perspective from which you do so, is all-important. My vote is for being a “good skeptic.”

Ask, don’t tell

Even the most committed communication professional needs to retain the ability to question all of the things they are committed to pursuing. And, where needed, to voice those questions to those who can bring clarity and decisiveness when things don’t fully make sense. 

At the extreme, it’s worth remembering F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

More commonly, and perhaps more fundamentally, it means having an ability and willingness to question small as well as big assumptions. 

One client was surprised, after my colleague, Joanne Henry, and I worked with them on a media statement over a couple of days and then, we, recommended that it be held back rather than sent proactively to media. We decided the news as it was was something procedural rather than substantive and might detract from larger announcements to come.. 

In their world, any news release is typically sent to the media releases were always sent to the media - but we questioned whether the message would add to or potentially detract from ongoing and upcoming events. In the end, we couldn’t find where it would add anything to that mix.

For the most part, such guidance best takes the form of questions - particularly if one is lower on the organization or project food chain than the person making the request or the assumption.  

Not a cynic, a skeptic

It’s also important to remember that there’s a big difference between a cynic, who actively disbelieves and a skeptic, who wants to believe but wants to confirm whether that belief makes sense.  In a corporate comms context, the “good skeptic” is one who questions whether or not the behavior, action or assumption is one that genuinely moves the agenda forward rather than detracting or distracting as the case may be.

In so doing, a communication pro contributes to success either by getting clarity on what the organization finds important, or by clearing away actions or attitudes that don’t move things forward.  

Want to add value as a communication pro? Start by being a good skeptic.

MIKE KLEIN is Principal of Changing The Terms, a practice focusing on internal and social communication based in Reykjavik. An MBA graduate of London Business School, Mike has 20 years experience as as an internal communicator, working with companies like Shell, Cargill, Avery Dennison, Maersk and easyJet. Mike authored "From Lincoln to LinkedIn - the 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication" and has co-authored numerous books and ebooks including "Disrupting the Profession of IC" with IC Kollectif, a 2019 Gold Quill Excellence winner. He recently launched the #WeLeadComms initiative to recognize communications professionals and organizations that make genuine contributions to the broader communication profession.

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2 thoughts on “Conscience of the company – or skeptic-in-chief?”

  1. I’ve always approached the role as the conscience of the brand. Note I said “brand” and not “company.” The brand is the sum of all the parts of a company — what it is now and what it’s striving to become. The actions of the leadership and the actions of the employees should support the brand. When they don’t, that is where the skeptic role comes to play. As always, enjoyed the stimulating questions you raise. Thanks, Mike Klein.

    1. I think we are mildly violent agreement. The main point of departure for challenging corporate behavior is to challenge from the standpoint of the organization’s values and commitments, and not one’s own. If one’s own morality is in conflict with the stated values and commitments, then it’s a question of the employee’s fit for the organization. But when the conflict is between stated commitments (which you characterize legitimately as the “brand”) and actual behaviors, a communicator is on much stronger ground when pointing out the internal contradiction.

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