CEOs: Time to give us the real story

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 I don’t know about you, but I find it’s not very often that a politician comes up with something that is transferable to the world of business, and leadership more generally.

Well, last Sunday I was watching Andrew Marr’s morning show and Douglas Carswell, ex Tory Member of Parliament and now the first UKIP MP, said something that offers a powerful challenge for so many CEOs - of larger corporates, in particular.

He said that the Conservative party should become “more like Spotify” and that “the way it is retailing politics is a bit like the way HMV retailed music: it’s a defunct retail model”.

Sounds true, doesn’t it – and not just for political parties. How many large corporates have on their payrolls PR “professionals” who regard the truth as something to be managed as part of a retail operation, and adjusted and fine-tuned to fit in with the latest corporate good news story they’re trying to spin?

Keeping truth out of the storyline

C’mon, the fact is that the criticisms we dump on the world of politics, for too much “spinning” and media manipulation, are so true of corporate communications across so many sectors.

Too many PR departments churn out propaganda – and that’s what it is – designed to persuade us how marvellous and close to perfection the business is. And if the truth gets in the way of this message, they see their brief as being to keep it out of the storyline.

The simple fact is that there is still too much retailing of lines and soundbites by communications professionals across all sectors of business - public, private and charitable - and their relationship with the truth is still far too casual.

Despite all of the corporate scandals in recent years, and all of the protestations by all sorts of Boards about their commitment to integrity at all times, the fact remains that far too many Boards still see corporate reputation coming first, with all else – including respect for the truth – lagging a fair way behind.

Not good enough to blame PR "pros"

Personally, I don’t think it’s good enough to blame those PR professionals who were trained to work in this way.

I think it’s up to their Chief Executives to call them in and tell them to stop pumping out their “happy-clappy” propaganda in staff newsletters and updates on the company website, and indeed in many information packs for the Board.

CEOs need to tell them that we're all old enough and ugly enough to be told about what hasn’t gone well, as well as what has gone well.

In trusting us with the “bad news”, they just need to give us some idea of what the company is doing to learn from whatever it is that's gone wrong, so that they're hopefully never in the same position again.

Playing up to who you aspire to be

One of the leaders who really models this approach is LinkedIn’s own CEO, Jeff Weiner. In a recent interview in Business Insider he told of the pressure he was under to change the ethos of openness when LinkedIn became a public company in 2011. His answer?

“We're going to play up to who we aspire to be and not play down to the lowest common denominator out of fear of what might happen. As soon as you do that, it's done.”

Wouldn’t it be great if the movement against retail communications, that is daily getting stronger in our political life, were to become stronger across the corporate world, as well.

Entrepreneurial CEOs who believe in straight talking: we need a few more of you to “walk the talk” with your comms people.

It’s time to dump retail communications not just in the world of politics but also across business, too.

Give us more of the real story

Going back to Mr. Carswell and his comments on HMV, you might have noticed that in its new slimmed down form HMV is now making something of a come-back.

However, their single figure growth rates are far short of the 42% growth rate recorded by Spotify last year - and now racing much higher, with revenue coming from 10 million + subscribers among Spotify’s 40 million users every month.

Corporate comms departments could learn so much from examining how they engage with their customers.

Give us more of the real story and less of what you think we should be hearing.

Sometimes the truth will hurt. But your staff – and maybe even your shareholders - will respect you so much more for it.

Just ask the Board of Tescos.  They should have a pretty unanimous view on this topic by now!

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