Monday, March 26, 2012

Ketchum's Leadership Study Contains Some Encouragement for Business Leaders

My alma mater, Ketchum, conducted a 12-country survey recently (Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor) where it uncovered what has been called a global “crisis of confidence in leaders and how they communicate.”  I always find studies like this interesting ,not only for the information they reveal, but also in how that information either matches up or is at odds with commonly accepted wisdom.  In the PR business, the usual source for such “wisdom” is the media.

I’ll save the suspense and summarize here what appear to be some of the more intriguing findings:

·         More people believe leadership will get worse in 2012 (31%), while 27% believe leadership will get better.
·         The report said that leadership credibility requires a combination of decisive action and transparent communication, which can be attained primarily through the leader’s own presence and involvement.
·         Business leaders were depicted as the most effective leaders, outdoing politicians, nonprofit and religious leaders.  Roughly 36% of those surveyed felt that business is providing effective leadership.  Forty-eight percent see them as effective communicators.
·         Only 25% of politicians and religious leaders received the same kind of rating that so many business leaders achieved.

Still, Rod Cartwright, Ketchum’s director of its Global Corporate Practice said in the company’s news release that the study “reveals for the first time the full extent of the world’s disappointment with its leaders across every category of human endeavor.”

According to the study, however, the business sectors that house the best leaders are technology, media, telecommunications, and then banking.  Energy and financial services followed, just ahead of consumer businesses.

The primary source of leadership credibility for companies, according to the study, was trustworthiness, and key to that was a hands-on approach on the part of the leadership.  Old-fashioned face-to-face communication is tops in terms of believability, followed by televised speeches, broadcast media and print media.  Social media, blogs and advertising were deemed to be significantly less credible. 

What this Means

Here’s where I offer my take on the Ketchum study.    It tells us what we already know.  Strong leaders are decisive, honest and transparent.  Because of that they are perceived as more trustworthy.  And because of that, employees will follow them through tough conditions to get a job done.  The hope is by trusting the leader, they will be rewarded with job security, and perhaps even a chance for advancement or increased income – not to mention, the sense of being a part of something important.

But as I mentioned, I always look for the thing that defies conventional wisdom, and this item goes right at the source.  After three years of almost non-stop political and media attacks on business in nearly every quarter, business leaders fared better in this survey than politicians and religious leaders.  Prior to reading this survey, I would have expected business leadership to have suffered, but instead it led the way. 

I did some additional reading and some analysis and arrived at my own theory for your consideration.  The media and many people in the PR business have bought into the narrative that the business sector created the recent economic turmoil and that corruption, greed and questionable ethics were the major contributors.  This worldview drove many organizations to adopt strategies for improved transparency on the basis that business leaders are not trusted.  The hallmark of such PR activities is the apology. 

I’ve disagreed with this way of thinking throughout and have never been one to counsel clients to use the apology as a PR tactic.  But many of my counterparts do.  They counsel their organizations to apologize and make quick reactionary organizational changes to appease critics in the hopes that the spotlight moves on as quickly as possible.  Too often, such PR decisions are made in the spirit of a legal plea bargain, never addressing whether indeed the company was “guilty” or “innocent,” but just striving for compromise to reduce the pressure.  To me, it’s a PR strategy built on defeatism.

And fortunately, the Ketchum study kind of bears that out.  If we are to glean anything from this study and use it to help our organizations, we may want to consider the worth in helping leaders stick to their positions longer, to be more patient, and while it’s always important to communicate early and often, don’t be so quick to make changes in direction or apologize.  With a little patience and strength, you may just find that your company’s strategies are the right ones, and the only real challenge is the effective communication of those strategies.

We should be able to presume that the leaders we represent want to do the right thing and that in order to do so they need time.  The role of PR under such circumstances is to use communication to give leaders the time they need to make their strategies work.  Of course, not every headline may be a glowing endorsement during this period, but if we do our jobs correctly, we should be able to educate reporters and the public on the dynamics at play as part of a larger picture so that the end, they are more willing to let leaders lead.

Based on the results of Ketchum’s study it appears the public already knows that.  In that sense, they just may be a step ahead of the PR community.

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