The Responsibility that Comes with Power

October 8, 2014

By: John Onoda

This is an excerpt from remarks John Onoda recently made at a meeting of The Arthur Page Society, an organization comprised of the heads of communications at Fortune 500 companies, CEOs of major PR agencies and leading PR academics.

Public relations has more power today than anyone could have envisioned back when Arthur Page was creating our function at AT&T. This is due mostly to globalization and the adoption of digital media. Most adults and many youngsters on this planet now have access to information and a means to express themselves.

The pool of people whose voice forms public opinion has increased by billions. Now almost everyone can engage in the larger world. Young or old, rich or poor, informed or ignorant, you get to make your point, whether it is welcomed or not. The ability for like-minded people to connect and organize can be measured in seconds. Reputations can be established or trashed with the swipe of a finger. Crowds or mobs can be mobilized. Boycotts can be called. Support can be rallied. Great sums of money can quickly flow to people, projects or causes that gain public favor.

In almost all countries public opinion is strengthening as a force that can make or destroy politicians, governments, stock markets, public policies and social norms. In some ways the growing pool of engaged human beings is comparable to a warming ocean that produces hurricanes of ever greater force and destructiveness.

This is our world. If anyone understands and can influence this great power it is the communicators in this room and our counterparts around globe. Where others perceive only chaos and serendipity, we can see the control switches and the links between cause and effect. Where others are flying blindly, we at least have some sense of how to maneuver, catch an updraft and avoid a crash.

The shift in power from the public sector to the private sector also contributes to our growing ability to affect the things that really matter. Most of us work – directly or indirectly — for large corporations. Their wealth, expertise and influence relative to the power of governments have grown tremendously in recent decades. If the corporations represented in this room pooled their resources and worked towards common objectives, they could largely solve many of the world’s most pressing problems.

Communications executives also have more power because we today have a seat at the table when important business and policy decisions are being made. More and more CEO’s know their ambitious plans must be embraced by their leadership team and be at least understood by all employees. They realize that regulators and politicians are driven by popular opinion, which can be shaped. They accept that corporate cultures only thrive when there is a steady flow of information throughout the organization. In short, they understand that communications is critical to their success and expect us to exert influence to achieve the right outcomes.

Now let’s consider the responsibility that comes with power.

Member of the Page Society are leaders inside their organizations. We are highly visible. We don’t just give orders; we shape the culture and energize people to achieve a common goal. We can model the behaviors that can make the workplace more uplifting and humane. We can encourage open debate. We can demonstrate sensitivity towards ethical considerations. We can hire people with different backgrounds.

We can stress the importance of looking beyond the current fiscal quarter and managing for the long term. We can fight for smart, timely communications when others advocate delay, obfuscation and evasiveness. We can champion the importance of informing, trusting and empowering employees in the belief that they are the true expression of a company’s character.

In short, we can live the Page Principles.

Another form of service is coaching, mentoring or offering a helping hand to the up-and-comers in our profession. A lot of people become head of the communications function without sufficient preparation or a sense of how different the role is from others they have held. It’s like stepping through the looking glass. After spending the first 15 or 20 years of our career perfecting professional and managerial skills that lead to steady advancement, it’s a shock to learn that those capabilities won’t ensure our success going forward.

In the top job, project management, attention to detail and technical knowledge aren’t nearly as important as vision, leadership, political skills, persuasive ability, judgment and business acumen. The need for these qualities becomes clear when suddenly you’re dealing with the CEO, chairman and board of directors. Suddenly, you’re going head to head with the chief legal counsel, chief financial officer, and business unit heads. You become privy to long-term strategies, personal agendas, business risks and interpersonal dynamics of which you had no prior awareness. You are asked to do things that don’t appear in any job description.

Most of us have made it through this final transition but only after making plenty of mistakes, learning from them, and working hard to address our deficiencies. Often, what helped the most was talking with more seasoned veterans who were willing to share their experiences with us.

Your can read the entire speech here:

John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.