Isn't Stakeholder Risk a CCO Responsibility?

June 16, 2015, Bruce Harrison

Truth and trust. Two words, Jack Welch told Page members, sum up the role of enterprise leadership communication. His comment at Page's 2015 Spring Seminar echoes a post-Depression era speech of Arthur W. Page. The chief communicator of the nation's biggest company in 1936 nailed the nexus of truth-telling to the recovery and forward basis of free enterprise. [i] The judges of “truth and trust" are stakeholders who are taking risks.

The word itself (stakeholder) derives from Americans taking the risk of disruption and loss, incentivized by the Homestead Act of 1862 to stake claim to land available to those who would work and live on it.[ii] Stake-holding and risk taking are the American way of doing business.

Michael Novak, in one of his sponsored Pfizer lectures in 1996, described stake-holding as a noble national theme; individual stakeholders, he said, secure the general welfare and the larger public interest.

“The stakeholder society…is the very foundation of the free society," said Novak. “Maintaining it entails investment, hard work, responsibility, risk, and earned reward or, often enough, personal failure….Freedom is tied to risk and responsibility." [iii] William Safire, himself an enterprise communicator, writer, author, Pulitzer Prize winner, spread news of the American way in a 1975 British handbook for enterprise managers.

“(Managers must focus on) needs of our 'stakeholders' (wrote Safire)— the persons and groups having a direct stake in our organization: the owners, employees…customers, suppliers, financiers, managers, the area in which the organization is established…"[iv] What's all this mean to 21st century enterprise communicators?

Everything. Risk is the CCO's front line. Stakeholders are risk takers. As the enterprise expert in stakeholder perception, the chief communicator in the C-suite deals with risk signals monitored in the flow of stakeholder action and conversation.

She's the pulse-taker of stakeholder decisions to take a stake in something important—consumption of products, investment of money, dedication to engagement as an employee—on the hope and promises of the enterprise.

She's the stakeholder values warden.

Stake-strengthening communication from the modern, competitive enterprise commonly underscores the worth of values delivered, and when the connection is shaken, explains the correction and the potential reward of the decision not to pull up stakes.

So, a question proposed for reader comment, or just to mull:

Are CCOs abundantly qualified and actively engaged in all C-suite risk assessment considerations?

[i] Page remarks in December 1936, at a public relations course at a time when the Bell System was the “biggest company in the United States." See Words from a Page in History, the Arthur W. Page Speech Collection of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Pennsylvania State University;
[ii] “A stake became a section of land marked off by stakes and claimed by the farmer," as the political communicator and popular linguist William Safire explained in a New York Times article. “By extension, a 'grub stake' was money advanced by the government for food—or grub—as an investment or loan."
[iii] Reference is taken from The Future of the Corporation, by Michael Novak, The AEI Press, publisher for the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, 1996. Novak, who won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the Wilhelm Weber Prize and the International Award of the Institution for World Capitalism. He served as director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at AEI. He was cofounder and publisher of Crisis and columnist for Forbes and National Review.
[iv] References, including that to Handbook for Managers, by P. Croon and W. A. C. Whitlau, were cited in On Language, by Safire in the New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1996.
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