Joining me on this week’s episode is Rebecca Wilson, the Executive Vice President International for WE Communications International. Overseeing a team of 120 communicators, Rebecca is responsible for driving the overall strategic direction, commercial operations, and global client growth across the markets, and driving collaboration across the APAC region. While I was a bit under the weather from a cold, Rebecca provided ethics insights on a number of topics, including:
- Addressing the diversity quota dilemma and tokenization
- How many companies are delivering on their value-led commitments
- How do brands balance their commitments to practical short-term issues versus long-term issues?
- Key findings from the 2022 Brands In Motion Study
- The two things every ethical communicator must embrace
Why don’t you tell my listeners more about yourself and your career?
I’ve spent the last 25 years of my career in corporate communication as an agency owner, and with WE Communications who acquired my business back in 2016. I’ve recently moved into an international leadership role, bringing together a borderless agency team to unlock opportunities across WE’s international sectors, its capabilities, services, and IP, to really fuel this next generation of growth, and advance our integrated communication expertise across those markets.
As part of that role, I lead our corporate reputation and brand purpose work in the international markets, which includes leading our ESG and sustainability work, which is just so important these days. And I also lead our annual Brands in Motion Research.
The communication industry is so broad, but I feel like I’ve landed in a really exciting intersection that’s allowed me to specialize in more niche areas such as investor relations, board, and executive advisory work, issues and crisis management, and, purpose-driven coms, ESG, and sustainability. It’s pretty exciting times.
It absolutely is. It’s why I love working where I am, right now. We’re focusing on purpose-driven brands. And consumers and people are expecting brands to take a stand and stand for something now more so than ever.
Before we get to the Brands in Motion report, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you personally have ever confronted at work?
I thought long and hard about this one. And I sit on several boards, including most recently, as a foundation board member of the PRCA Australian chapter.
Being a woman with capabilities and skills that are increasingly in demand, you can find yourself caught up in what I call the diversity quota dilemma, where boards want you, but only to tick that gender diversity box. For me, it’s a real flag. Irrespective of how exciting the opportunity looks, that lack of authenticity really centers on business ethics for me. If diversity and inclusion is about ticking the boxes only to look good to stakeholders, then this is really not a business I want to be associated with.
Tokenization is an issue. Sometimes it’s things you don’t expect. Our agency is committed to sharing our diversity numbers. We’re doing okay. We need to do better like most agencies. But some of our employees who are people of color were conserved and didn’t want to show it for it made them feel like a number. I want to show progress, but I’m going to take listen to my employees first.
Well, 100%. And it’s not just the diversity side of it, it’s actually the inclusion. How do we make sure that you can be your whole self in your job and in society.
Let’s talk about the 2022 Brands in Motion report. What are some of the key findings?
This latest report showed that people see companies as one of the most important institutions for driving positive change. They come right after the government and media. But the research finds that only half of companies are delivering on their value-led commitments. Actually, 80% of respondents agreed that during times of high social division, business and organizations have a moral obligation to help bridge those differences. Companies are faced with a delicate balancing act. How do they manage this tension between long-term commitments and short-term stakeholder demands? How do they better demonstrate that their companies stand for, and give proof of progress against, these commitments?
What’s your advice to communicators as they prioritize to make sure that they’re walking the walk as well as talking the talk?
First off, companies need to know that they don’t need to solve every problem, but they do need to own the ones that they take on. As companies work to create solutions and share progress, they’ve really got to find the right balance between showing clear metrics and telling those human-centered stories. In other words, they’ve got to show the progress, not the perfection.
You hit a key point. Too often companies want to chase the issue of the day, and they look like a soccer team of seven-year-olds, going after the bright shiny object instead of aligning it to your purpose. How do you work with organizations to help them identify what are those value-led commitments they want to focus on?
I think it’s about going back to what’s really authentic and what they can own as an organization. This is not about ticking the box. It’s not just about doing something for the sake of doing it. It’s really making sure that they’re doing things that really align with their business, with their industry, with their employees. Being able to get them on board. It has to be grounded in their DNA. It needs to be filtered throughout the organization. That’s a really important thing that we’ve got to achieve to ensure that there is that authenticity.
How do brands balance their commitments to practical short-term issues versus long-term issues?
It’s a really great question. I get asked it all of the time. A lot of brands think that they can’t do one without the other. There is a really important piece of advice, and that is to maintain the goal, and maintain the aspiration. At the end of the day, it’s really important that we are pushing brands and companies to achieve the very best that they can. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of what’s going on around at them at the moment.
Our research showed that there’s huge pressures around the cost of living, for instance. And whilst brands might not be able to solve that, they have to take those things into consideration so that they’re able to really maintain the engagement of their key stakeholders and customers.
Are people becoming increasingly skeptical? If so, what impact is that having on business?
I actually think the skepticism is really healthy. I sat on a panel last week at a conference talking about ESG and sustainability and there was substantial discourse amongst the panelists. I found it really refreshing. We are always going to have detractors and fans in business. Then there’s a huge amount of people that sit in between those things. I actually don’t see it as an issue per se, it’s more around having the data to inform.
How do you approach the engagement of different cohorts of customers or stakeholders? Understanding that you’re going to have your stakeholders falling into those three buckets really helps brands to determine what’s going to engage them, what’s the best way to approach it. If they do that well and show authenticity, then they will be able to win those that are perhaps skeptical. They certainly will be able to influence those that are sitting in between.
Are there areas where you’re seeing consumers more skeptical than others? Is it greenwashing or wokewashing?
I think it’s both. I know I’ve said the word quite a lot today, because authenticity is so much part of this. In our research we discuss sharing the journey. Sharing the journey means also being able to, as a leader, be the first to say, “You know what? We’re not making the progress we thought we would, and these are the reasons why.” Or, “We thought that this was going to be a good thing for our brand community, but it’s not, because of this.” It’s that real bravery of being able to steer the journey, good and bad, that is going to start to build more authenticity and support for brands. Authenticity is an essential element. You got to bring your whole self to work. And the companies have to be authentic, as well.
How do you recommend brands keep that authenticity? Internationally, there are differences by country. I spoke with Torod Neptune back when he was at Lenovo about their STEM commitment and realizing they needed to keep their overall North star. But what they did in Pakistan would be very different than what they did in Peoria or in Paris. How do you help brands keep that authenticity across regions?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Torod, as well. He’s a terrific leader. He really embraces, being a leader who can really show that they can have that impact.
But to your question, I think it’s about making sure that leaders really think about the local issues that are most important to them. How often do we see once a month Google changing their banner on their search engine to reflect whatever the awareness month of the time is, and how do other companies sort of jump on board with that.
We’re all getting tired of that sort of mass jump-on-board type mentality, whereas now I think it really is looking in your own backyard, supporting the causes that are most important to your stakeholders, locally, and really maintaining the course of those. So, not jumping on the bandwagon, but keeping it really, really local.
I think the right purpose-driven initiatives, again, to your point around greenwashing, that really avoid them being seen as greenwashing, and being able to own something very authentically. Because we’re seeing that consumers and other stakeholders are really seeing through those that are jumping onto initiatives that really aren’t aligned to their business. Those things are going to be really important.
Are there any other key points that you want to highlight from the 2022 Brands in Motion study?
There are few simple ways comms pros can help their companies better reach their stakeholders and show how their actions are having impact.
Number one, speak to how they are delivering practical solutions to everyday problems. Cost of living is the number one area companies must accelerate and show their efforts. Other key areas that we found were employment opportunities and access to healthcare and mental health resources.
Second, stay the course with long-term goals. Now, I believe that brand leaders can effectively navigate commitments for shorter-term issues. And what is consistent with our 2021 findings is that 70% of respondents wanted companies to focus their multi-year investments on a single cause rather than support a different issue each year.
The third, be brave and transparent, sharing progress with clear metrics and tangible results. This is about getting credit for the good work that you do.
And finally, do what they do best and focus on their sphere of influence. Companies should lean into the areas where they can deliver measurable and lasting results.
For folks that want to get the 2022 Brands in Motion report, where can they go to get it?
You can go to www.wecommunications.com.
Beyond the 2022 Brands in Motion report, what do you personally see as some of the communications ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
In today’s world, communicators must embrace and emphasize an ethos of honesty. If honesty is the quality, then transparency is the verb. It’s how an organization conveys its point of view through what I think needs to be a real open and generous communications, letting both internal and external audiences know exactly where they stand. CEOs need to be able to deliver straight facts transparently, proactively, and with a down-to-earth openness.
And for me, most importantly, they need to admit when they’ve not got all of the answers or have made mistakes along the way. Thankfully, more and more social responsibility and market successes are lining up, which is really, really encouraging. Because consumers want to see companies act ethically. And they want to see them act with transparency. Companies want to meet that expectation. So, the C-Suite is the most powerful tool in the communicator’s toolbox for sharing those stories and ensuring that everything is above board, honest, and well communicated.
That is great advice. And speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Well, this is a bit of a doozy…Integrity, like one’s virginity, can only be lost once. There is such a strong connection between integrity and ethics. There are so many issues business leaders need to deal with. But integrity and ethics are completely within the control of individuals. It’s one of the most binary assessments you can make in choosing who you work with and who you want to work with.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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- We Must Confront the Uncomfortable Truths – Roger Bolton - April 17, 2023