Joining me on this week’s episode is Torod Neptune, the chief communications officer at Lenovo, the world’s largest PC, smart devices, and tablet manufacturer. Before that he was vice president of corporate communications for Verizon and the Holmes Report called him one of the industry’s most effective change agents. We had the pleasure of working together on the PRSA Foundation.
Torod discusses a number of key ethics issues including:
- How to move companies from the organization they are today to the one they want to be
- Living brand values globally and locally
- Why addressing ethics issues with technology requires businesses to think at the top of the stream
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I’d say in terms of my career overall, it’s pretty much been split fairly evenly over about a 24-year period, half agencies and then half in-house at big global brands with a minor detour as I describe it, through Capitol Hill in Washington DC. I began as many of us in this profession, as a reporter for a daily newspaper in the South.
You’ve worked with some of the largest brands and working in global issues. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
It’s a great question. I’d say the most consistent challenge that I find myself being confronted with is one that I think is probably fairly typical for our discipline. I’ll preface this by saying I think the most significant role and responsibility that I and my peers generally play I describe as connecting the organization we are today in reality and truth to the organization we aspire to be ultimately. Managing that continuum is fraught with risk, inauthenticity, poor decision making, bad business decisions, you name it.
So, I think the challenge around that ethical continuum is most effectively pushing, poking and prodding organizations to fix the disconnect and to be open and honest and transparent about that process. Many times, organizations are not even honest about their being a disconnect. I think we’re more inclined to want to talk about our aspirational view or vision or what we desire to be in our highest and most positive light. But we have the responsibility of not just speaking truth to power, but also doing the hard work to challenge our organizations to live up to these commitments that we most often are fine making through a very myopic marketing or PR lens but we need to live in a broad arena.
You mention fixing the disconnect, bringing truth to power and challenging people. You’ve done it successfully throughout your career. What’s some advice when other PR pros find themselves in that situation, how can they most effectively do that?
That’s a great question. The core of what we do is premised on great relationships and that’s perhaps one of the more significant values that organizationally, I hope, my peers and our teams are delivering for our organization regardless of the shape, size or location of those organizations. Relationships are key.
The health and import of those relationships are directly proportionate to our ability to successfully have the kinds of conversations that I was alluding to in terms of managing or navigating that continuum. I think we must do the work of building, prioritizing, maintaining, caring for, and feeding those relationships at a peer level. Perhaps more significantly, we need to do this at the C-Suite level (however the organization defines the C-Suite) to have the types of leadership, strategic business influencing conversations that drive change. Those are probably the two most critical things that determine our success.
One important caveat, there’s a difference between speaking a truth or speaking truth to power and being able to successfully influence an organization’s decision making to drive business outcomes in a way that bend the organization toward this balance truth and aspiration.
That’s a great point. And that ties into something I was talking to Deb Peterson about with the Business Roundtable expanding the definition of business from just having a focus on shareholder value to true stakeholder value. But as I say, it’s great to say it, but you’ve got to prove it. You need to actually make that influence and move it forward.
Is there anything you look back on and say, “I made this mistake and I wish I had done it differently.”
I try to live forward and focus forward, but if I think about over the horizon of a career, I’d say things that I’ve learned as I’ve matured probably map back partly to this relationship discussion.
I think maybe secondarily an ‘ah hah’ moment for me early on in my career was gaining the savvy or maturity to not take things personally. There are times along the way where I was less successful at that than I should have been. Some of that is a reflection of the kinds of issues that we deal with and that we’re confronted with within our organizations. The kinds of things that we are helping our organizations grapple with are in some ways they can be the most strategic issues, the most significant business impacting issues.
These issues and then the process of raising them and addressing them can be somewhat emotive as well. Because at the end of the day it boils down to conversations that are premised on what is seen as less fact based. They may not be data driven. Decisions may not be decisions that we can clearly point to this decision will have an $X billion-dollar impact on revenue, profit margins or share price. But we know as brand ambassadors and reputation shepherds for our organizations that there are downstream impacts to many business decisions that can’t be immediately quantified, but we know have a financial impact.
It’s a very long-winded way of saying I do think this challenge of not being emotional or not taking things personally and being able to reason strategically and articulately to really stake out the significant impact of the things that we care passionately about is where I have faced some challenges. And if there are some moments that I would say, “Man, if I could go back, I would probably arm myself differently for that battle.” They would probably be on that broad base.
The organizations you work with are the global and sometimes the standards and expectations may change from country to country. How do you work to preserve an organization’s core values and make sure you communicate that effectively in countries around the world?
I think that’s a great question, particularly for the global world that we live in. It is one of the unique challenges that we deal with every day. In terms of culture and values, there are some values that are ironclad, that are consistent across the board regardless of whether you’re sitting in Budapest or Brazil.
I think being very clear and having it understood across an organization what those ironclad values are is one thing. But I think secondarily, there’s another layer or a nuance and we have to be mindful of the cultural, geographic and political differences. We should take some core aspects of who we believe we are and what our internal mission is and even what our culture is and make those as relevant as possible or contextualize those cultural aspirations in a way that I think allows them to be fluid in a good way.
The ability to understand both those unquestionable values, vision and philosophy, those things that are consistent in our global capital G Global, versus the freedom and flexibility that we have to give truly global organizations with truly global teams to deal with global customers and stakeholders. They have to be able to make those relevant while still being true and consistent to the ultimate aspiration, the ultimate commitment.
I think the last thing that I’d say is that the benefit diverse global teams culturally and otherwise, is that you can rely on experts, people who really understand who live it, who breathe it, who’ve grown up in it. And when you combine those unique and distinctive and relevant insights and perspectives and cultures that are all sitting around the collective table to do this work, it’s much, much easier. As opposed to somebody, leadership or otherwise, that looks and sits and exists in one part of the world painting themselves to be experts on what it should look like operationally in a market somewhere else on the other side of the world. I think that is just the epitome of disingenuous leadership and runs counter to what we’re talking about there.
I was talking speaking with Matt Kucharsky and he was giving the example about having a speak up culture and what that means in the US as opposed to what that means in China. Is there an example at all that you’re willing to share about how Lenovo works to customize initiatives by country?
The Lenovo Foundation is a great example. We’re trying to establish a reputation around some of our citizenship priorities, which are largely focused on STEM, women and girls and expanding access to STEM careers within those demographics. as a broad construct that is what we are committed to as an organization in terms of our engagement in communities and leveraging our technology to enable many of these things. But again, in terms of how we show up that way is very distinct. If you think about the women and girls challenge here in in the West is reality are quite different than in some of the Eastern countries where there are much more cultural reasons why that’s the case.
And so, we try to preserve the ability for our local teams and our local geographic leaders to really take our STEM campaign and make that relevant in that market as opposed to establishing global programs.
A more practical example is our integrated comms organization that I sit in today. We create campaigns that are more specific to the geographic realities while being true to an overall global framework. We have this a brand positioning that we’ve just launched in the last month or so “Smarter technology for all”, which essentially is the manifestation of all the things we’re talking about. We want to expand access to communities and people who have not traditionally benefited from technology.
But that would look very different in China than it would look in in Germany or New Mexico or in parts of Latin America. That kind of flexibility is something we try to do daily and hopefully we get to the point where it doesn’t require as much thought, but it does require a ton of focus and attention.
A few minutes ago, you were talking about diversity, and I know this is something you and I have talked about quite a bit in the past. Communication and public relations has a diversity issue. What ethically more should we be doing to help improve the diversity within the industry?
This is the tough conversation. I was reading something a little earlier from one of the holding company CEOs who was also raising the red flag on the issues as an industry that we’re grappling with. So I would say, I think it’s a moral dilemma that we face, a moral crisis.
But to the specific point, as a business leader who’s responsible for helping an organization figure out the best way for us to grow our footprint, our market share, to grow our business, impact our product sales, to drive revenue and value across unbelievably complex stakeholder organization. I think we increasingly have an ethical obligation in terms of us delivering what is best for our stakeholders. We’ve seen the same discussion across global tech for the last couple of years in a very public way.
I think we’ve got a business risk and a business obligation to solve this problem both in terms of all the data that we know about the value and benefit of diverse teams. I think we’re way beyond that and I think there is an existential question for our discipline around whether we are going to be able to provide the level of insight and intelligence and relevant value to our organizations.
If those of us who pretend to provide that value don’t look like, think like, and understand the reality of what the world looks like today, which is increasingly a diverse culturally, ethnically and gender society. And so, I think again, this is a business imperative, ethical responsibility, moral imperative. I think you cannot convince me that a business leader who is truly trying to drive organizational and business value would not see this as one of the more significant issues that has to be addressed and addressed in a real meaningful way now as opposed to another talking point.
Thinking back over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I think the earlier point about not taking it personally is that is a big one. But I’d say one of the transitions I made mid-ish career was also after a conversation with the very senior leader in a big global brand, who really pushed me to begin to think and behave and operate less as the PR comms guy in the room, and based on the knowledge I was bringing to bear, the expertise I possess, to elevate myself in my role to that of a business leader. A business leader who understood how to pull and identify the comms, marketing, and PR levers to drive the business outcome. That may sound like a bit of a nuance, but it is a significant change.
I think earlier on, I was quite passionate about being the PR, the comms person, banging the table about some PR or comms truth. But I had perhaps less appreciation for what we were talking about earlier, the reality of business today, which is that we’ve got to drive value and we’ve got to drive growth. And ultimately, we’ve got to make money to keep ourselves in business, so we’re able to do all these great things that we’re talking about for the communities we serve and society of which we are apart and for our publics.
Being able to switch hats or evolve hats to the point where we really become operations and business leader who understand what to do to influence decision is a critical shift. And I was encouraged again earlier on in my career to think about and to actualize who I represented in the room.
I think we as comms people are being forced to deal with the next wave of technology, whether you call it the fourth industrial revolution or the smartification of technology. I think there’s some serious ethical questions that are emerging that bring us back to connecting the dots between the company we are today and the company we aspire to be.
The evolution that’s happening within the broad technology arena is creating some interesting ethical problems for business that I think we have, as practitioners, the obligation and the responsibility to address them before they get thrown in our lap to fix as problems. We must help our organizations understand how to organize around, how to come to a business position, how to come to a policy or a procedure that appreciates some of these ethical dilemmas and helps our organizations think about how to get in front of them in terms of the business and the operations, not the PR solution, but how we fix the operational risk that some of this is generating before it turns into reputation, perception, brand challenges for us.
For example, AI and some things that we’re starting to understand about the challenges that exist there in addition to the massive opportunities, is a great example of one of these areas I’m talking about.
One of the interesting nuances of the conversation that’s happening globally around AI for the last several months ties back to the D&I conversation and deals with bias inherent bias – and not just with the AI. Our industry is suffering from challenges with diversity and inclusion. But if you think about the teams that are building, creating, designing this technology. If they are not diverse, what by default is going to be a result of the technology?
We’re trying to go back and re-engineer our processes and the way we think about recruiting and the way we think about building the teams that are helping us design, develop and create. We’re looking at how do we drive system change as opposed to thinking about fixing or tweaking the solution, which is how we kind of de-bias AI in this example and how do we go way, way, way upstream and look at the recruitment and the staffing of these technological, engineering and STEM-focused teams and organizations that are part of building this technology. We need to go at it that way as well.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- This Week in PR Ethics (8/13/20): NRA, McDonald’s, and Ethics Lessons from the First Female CCO - August 13, 2020
- The ethical trap of enabling toxic, abusive high-performers: Lisa Gralnek - August 10, 2020
- This Week in PR Ethics (8/6/20) – Virtual People, Pay-for-Play in Sports Reporting and the Metaverse - August 6, 2020