Activism of many stripes is challenging companies to think differently on a range of issues, and the Page Society Spring Seminar in New York, chaired by Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky, challenged the packed room to think differently about the stakeholder environment and our ability as communicators to engage effectively.
Across the street from the Freedom Tower, which today stands in place of the World Trade Center, Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon, co-authors of Thinking the Unthinkable, warned business leaders to develop a keen sense for anticipating the future and both the ability and courage to take action to head off threats. But the real challenge is actually "thinking the unpalatable," coming to terms with the stuff that as humans we're inclined to deny rather than confront. "There's permafreeze myopia," said Gowing, arguing that willful blindness and groupthink are often systematic in that the "mavericks" who think way outside the box are often shuffled to the side. "It's not about rewriting the systems in companies," he added, "but reconfiguring the human software."
With that uncomfortable reality as the context, the Spring Seminar delved into some of the more prevalent types of activism that Page members are confronting. Dawn Lyon of Glassdoor, speaking on a panel focused on employee activism, noted that "if employees feel that they're not heard, that can have downstream implications for customers and other stakeholders, and ultimately diminish the value that you deliver." And, she added, two in three employees expect their companies to take a stand on social issues. When it comes to issues like Diversity & Inclusion, the most effective way to engage employees is to be authentic – be honest about the reality, be clear about what actions are being taken, and keep stakeholders informed on the progress that's being made.
Later, a panel featuring David Benoit of The Wall Street Journal, shared their perspectives on shareholder activism. Benoit, acknowledging that he "parachutes into situations" when activists strike, noted his paper's policy of "no surprises" – no company will read something in their pages without knowing about it and having the chance to respond in advance. Barrett Golden of Joele Frank reinforced the point, explaining that "90% of the work that we do with press is on background," helping educate them in advance about the issues and the company so they're more apt to reflect the company's position fairly and accurately. Mike Miller, former General Counsel of Monster.com, explained that he viewed his job as helping the CCO communicate to the C-Suite and the board to ensure the company was mindful not only of its financial risks but also of the communication that must take place between company and activist investors. Connecting the issue to the Page Principles, Bill Wohl of Commvault, who moderated the panel, reminded the room of its responsibility to "conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it," since it sometimes does when it comes to dealing with activist investors.
Wrapping up the afternoon was a prominent activist CEO, Farooq Kathwari of Ethan Allen. In a session broadcast via Facebook Live, he spoke of his leadership style and why he views it as important that companies of all types remain true to their culture and values. "You need to be willing to lose for a principle," he said. And the actions that the company takes – and the behavior that its leadership exhibits – manifests itself throughout the company, which is why leaders must communicate a single message to all audiences. "Our messages to employees and to board members has to be the same, they have to believe in who we are," he added. "If you don't convince your people, nothing much happens."
At bottom, Day 1 was about company values, and how they relate to the actual value that a company creates in the world – for employees, for customers, for shareholders, and for society at large. In what Page chairman Dave Samson of Chevron called "the era of big activism," the North Star is values, and as communicators, we have an opportunity to lead not only on what the company says, but what it stands for and believes in.