Connect, Lord Browne’s latest book poses serious questions for the aspiration of public relations in the boardroom.
Lord Browne’s latest book Connect was published last week. You can’t have missed hearing about it. He had a column in The Sunday Times, an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and a smattering of other coverage. It was very well promoted.
Browne’s publicist did a great job, but if they were to read the book, their heart might sink at some of the implications its ideas have for the future of public relations. In particular, for the corporate public relations functions that run Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and external relations programmes.
This isn’t a book review so I’m going to summarise Browne’s core argument, present three salient points and recommend that you read the book.
CSR is so last century
Lord Browne’s core argument is that business needs to take account of the wider social context within which it operates and, in doing so, the most successful businesses will be those that contribute to society through the core of what they do. He calls it Connected Leadership. He believes that CSR, the tool currently used by business to engage with society is too detached from actual business functions.
None of what he says is revolutionary. The idea that businesses should have a purpose beyond profits is pretty popular these days. Most of us will advise clients that the best CSR comes from doing things that align closely with what a business does, that philanthropy unrelated to what you do is pretty pointless from a commercial perspective.
His conclusions, however, call for a step change. He argues for rolling back CSR teams, that those managing business units take control of engaging with stakeholders, that the business value of societal goals be built into business planning and that businesses become radically transparent. All of this, he says, should start from the CEO and work its way down a company. It takes corporate communications and calls for it to be stripped down and its responsibilities to be spread across operational teams.
A fifth and a third
The book’s findings are underpinned by a McKinsey study among 2,000 executives from around the world. Its two key findings are that, “less than 20% reported frequent success in influencing state and civil society decisions.” And yet, the, “value at stake from plausible government intervention alone represents approximately one third of corporate profits.”
The message is that external relations as it currently stands is underperforming. The book details other data that indicate business leaders believe there is a lack of capacity and capability in their external relations at present.
Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol crisis is well known. It is well known for a reason. It is the standout example of how to handle a crisis. But the Tylenol crisis happened in 1982. I was only a year old. It is still the go to case study when discussing crisis communications. This isn’t because of a dearth of crises in the intervening period. It is telling (and somewhat depressing) that there are few other case studies of best practice.
On a similar theme, IBM’s Smarter Planet and Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan are used as examples of the importance and power of having a purpose. These are examples that are used time and again in various books, conference presentations and pitches. They’re used because they are good and, crucially, successful examples. However, the issue, again, is that there are too few examples.
These three points coupled to Browne’s broad point about the need for purpose and engagement to be more closely meshed within businesses, point to a failure to inspire, and demonstrate value to senior executives. They point to disconnected communications.
Read the book. There will be bits you agree with and others with which you will strongly disagree. Crucially, it poses difficult questions about the way businesses operate and engage with their stakeholders.