The Power of Diversity, Civility and Authenticity by Roger Bolton, President, Page

The 20th James C. Bowling Executive-In-Residence Lecture
Sponsored by the Department of Integrated Strategic Communication And the Journalism and Media Alumni Association
University of Kentucky
The Power of Diversity, Civility and Authenticity
By Roger Bolton, President, Page
Thank you for the opportunity to deliver the 20th Annual James C. Bowling Executive-In-Residence Lecture. It is an honor to be here in my wife’s home state and following in the footsteps of so many leaders I admire, including Betsy Plank, Ginger Hardage, Valerie DiMaria, Ken Sternad, Torod Neptune, Bill Nielsen, Peter Debreceny and Harold Burson – great friends, all.
Special thanks to Beth Barnes, Jennifer Greer, Shari Veil, Chike Anyaegbunam, Jack Guthrie, Marc Whitt and Camille Wright.
I want to speak to you this evening about three powerful concepts that I believe are critical to those of us in the public relations and corporate communications profession. In fact, I will go further. I think these three ideas are essential to the survival of the institutions that enrich human life on this planet – maybe even to the survival of human life on this planet.
You can let me know after my remarks if you think I’ve gotten carried away with hyperbole. Or not. The three concepts I will address are these: Authenticity, diversity, and civility.
Let’s begin with authenticity. And I’ll start with my two favorite quotes from Arthur W. Page. Yes, he was a real person. Arthur Page was the vice president of public relations for AT&T from 1927 to 1946. He is considered to be the first senior corporate communications executive who was more than a publicity man. Mr. Page served on the company’s most senior management committee and on its elected board of directors. He was engaged in senior policy deliberations.
At Page, our new branding has dropped the Arthur W. We want to be known as just Page. It’s more modern, forward looking, diverse, inclusive, 21st century. All good things. But there’s something to be said for wisdom passed down from our founders. There’s a reason they named our organization after Mr. Page.
The first quote from Mr. Page is this:
Public relations is 90% doing and 10% talking about it.
It describes a simple idea: If you want to have a good reputation, you’d better deserve it. Especially in this era of radical transparency and hyper-connectivity, your true character – which is demonstrated by your actions, not by your words – will shine through.
The second quote is:
All business in a democratic society begins with public permission and exists by public approval.
This one is about the value of a good reputation: why you need it. Without it, you may be denied permission to operate. Or, at least, to have your ability to operate significantly curtailed by the withholding of customer support and also by government regulation.
So, what does this mean for those of us who serve institutions – businesses, non-profits, governments – as public relations and communications professionals? Messaging, campaigns, stakeholder engagement, crisis response – all essential. But that’s Mr. Page’s 10%. How do we affect the 90%?
At Page, the foundation is the Page Principles. These were not written by Mr. Page himself, but rather derived from his lifetime of work and writings by the founders of Page.

  • Tell the truth. Not sometimes. All the time. Not failing to lie, but telling the whole truth.
  • Prove it with action. More on this in a minute.
  • Listen to the stakeholder. We’ll talk about listening shortly, too.
  • Manage for tomorrow. Never more important than in this time of rapid and radical change.
  • Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people. This is the heart of the authenticity point.
  • Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. As the second quote from Mr. Page shows, it does.
  • Remain calm, patient and good-humored. Everyone’s favorite. But not always easy.

Let’s focus for a moment on:

  • Prove it with action. And,
  • Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people.

These two principles suggest that an institution must focus on its actions and its culture. Mr. Page’s writings are filled with references to the people of AT&T and how their interactions with the public were the most important determinant of the company’s reputation.
So, how does the practice of corporate communications affect these operational issues? How do we make sure the institution acts in accordance with its mission, purpose and values? The answer to these questions goes to the heart of the modern role of the chief communications officer, or CCO.
Our first research report, The Authentic Enterprise, in 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced, foresaw the coming “global playing field of unprecedented transparency and radically democratized access to information production, dissemination and consumption.”
We concluded, “In such an environment, the corporation that wants to establish a distinctive brand and achieve long-term success must, more than ever before, be grounded in a sure sense of what defines it -- why it exists, what it stands for and what differentiates it in a marketplace of customers, investors and workers.”
Five years later, in 2012, we refined our thinking and introduced the Page Model. It starts with building corporate character, “the enterprise’s unique identity, its differentiating purpose, mission and values.” Those definitions must influence its culture, business model, strategy, brand, policies and positions, all defined and aligned to make a coherent whole – one that is worthy of trust.
In other words, we determine what value we want to create and how we will create it, with an eye to customer, shareholder, employee, community and societal needs, and then we work to make sure that everyone associated with the enterprise – employees, suppliers, partners – brings it to life by acting consistently with our desired corporate character.
One might ask if that’s actually the job of the CCO, if it doesn’t sound more like the task of the entire organization, led by the CEO. Correct. But the CCO can and indeed must be a tireless advocate for and participate in the definition and activation of the corporate character.
That requires a level of strategic leadership that goes well beyond a mere service function. The CCO, we argue, should be a senior business leader, engaged across the C-Suite, advocating for and helping to adopt the priorities, strategies and actions that will make the enterprise worthy of trust.
That, in turn, requires significant business knowledge and leadership capabilities.
Specifically, you have to have a clue – a deep understanding of the business itself and of the global socio-political and economic trends in which the company operates. ALSO: the ability to think strategically, not just about communications issues, but also about business policies and strategies.
Second, you have to have the guts to speak up and make one’s voice heard, even when it’s not easy.
And finally, you have to have woo. I know woo is a verb, but I like it as a noun. Here, I’m talking about EQ, emotional intelligence, the ability to win people over, to build allies, and to marshal support for ideas that initially may not be popular with senior management peers.
This is where I would like to introduce the concept of diversity. Getting everyone in the organization onto the same page is a very good thing. It’s essential to the success of the organization. Together, we have reached consensus on what we are trying to achieve, what we believe, how we must act in order to succeed. We’re all aligned. We get each other.
But there’s a downside. It’s called groupthink. That can be very dangerous. The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and the Boeing 737 MAX are examples where reasonable doubts and non-supportive facts were ignored in favor of group consensus.
The solution to groupthink is the ability of the organization to take into account different perspectives. CCOs are well placed to help with this because of their responsibility for stakeholder engagement. They are often better attuned than other executives to external realities – new trends and emerging changes in public opinion – that present both challenges and opportunities for the existing business.
To do this well, CCOs and their organizations must be willing to understand and embrace diverse viewpoints. It helps substantially if the team doing this work is diverse itself. In every sense of the word.
When we do this listening well, we encourage the organization to embrace diversity. This has the dual benefit of being the right thing to do, because it gives opportunities to diverse populations, and also of being good for the institution, because it enables it to make better decisions, informed by a wider range of relevant facts, and to build broader public support.
Let’s now introduce our third theme -- the concept of civility -- as we look at how we do this stakeholder engagement.
The second major piece of the Page Model, in addition to corporate character, is authentic stakeholder engagement. This is the more traditional role of the CCO. Here, we see the modern CCO engaging directly with stakeholders to build shared belief, which requires authentic two-way dialogue.
There is a lot of focus in public relations and corporate communications on messaging and storytelling – how to do it well and persuasively.
But I hope you have been exposed to the work of public relations professor and researcher Jim Grunig – a Page member and winner of the Page Distinguished Service Award. 35 years ago, Jim and his colleague, Todd Hunt, developed the two-way symmetrical model of communication.
Remember the Page Principle – Listen to the Stakeholder? True two-way dialogue requires listening – not just to form the counter-argument, but with an open heart and an open mind and a willingness to change. It requires a humble recognition that we are not always right.
If we want to be good persuaders, we also must be willing to be persuaded. Organizations that listen well are the best at building relationships of trust based on shared belief.
Too often in the past the practice of public relations stops with belief. We want people to understand our point of view. To accept it. To think well of us and our brand. But this is actually just the beginning of the journey, not the end.
When done well, building shared belief can lead to positive actions by stakeholders, such as buying products, investing in the company, entering into partnerships and the like. Over time, as stakeholder relationships deepen, they can lead to mutual confidence and respect (that is, a strong and positive reputation) that may result in advocacy by stakeholders.
That’s still not the end of the cycle, but rather a new beginning, as the advocacy leads to more shared belief by new stakeholders, followed by more positive actions. Thus, the CCO leads a process that not only builds reputation, but ensures that the positive reputation encourages the kinds of actions that lead to enterprise success.
When Mike Fernandez was CCO at Cargill, he met with “all the environmental NGOs who hated us.” Over time, he was able to get the NGOs to meet with the company’s agricultural scientists for a productive dialogue that led to changes in Cargill policies and NGO logos on the Cargill website.
Now, I would like to put it all together with a look at Page’s newest report, The CCO as Pacesetter, issued in September. Over a period of 18 months, we interviewed more than 200 CCOs around the world and another 171 responded to our quantitative survey. We identified four dimensions of the CCO role that provide leverage in fulfilling this mandate to be the voice for change in the C-Suite: corporate brand, corporate culture, corporate societal value and CommTech. More on these in a minute.
We always start our research by asking: What is the problem we are trying to solve? What is the business context in which we are operating? What are the challenges facing the institutions we serve?
In this case, the context was crystal clear: There is a profound global confluence of disruptive factors that are challenging virtually every institution worldwide. Driven substantially by technology and new business models – cloud-based and increasingly powered by AI – these disruptive new players are challenging the very existence of many businesses in many sectors.
There also are rapidly changing stakeholder expectations of business. These disruptive factors are driving a profound need for most enterprises to transform themselves. New business models, cultures and technology platforms are urgently needed. These companies are asking very fundamental questions: Why do we exist? What value do we create? How must we evolve?
CEOs are looking for help, and not always sure where to turn. We see a huge opportunity for CCOs to step up, and a concurrent danger that if they don’t, their role will be marginalized and supplanted by others – often with new C-titles, such as chief transformation officer or chief experience officer.
The first three of the four dimensions of the role of the CCO that we identified in the new CCO as Pacesetter report relate to the CCO’s role in helping the enterprise define and activate its corporate character, as we described in the Page Model. In the face of the disruption we are seeing in all institutions around the world, this work is absolutely critical, and it’s where CEOs are asking for help.
So, let’s start with corporate brand. Somewhat surprisingly, 66% of those responding to our survey reported that the CCO – not the CMO – now has formal responsibility to lead corporate brand in their organizations. We see CCOs stepping up, not only to set the brand standards and communicate the brand promise to multiple stakeholders, but also to work with peers across the enterprise to ensure that all touchpoints with all stakeholders are “on brand.” This requires having an influence on the operations of the company.
Second, corporate culture, which CEOs identify as the single biggest impediment to successful transformation. Here, the CCO is less likely to “own” the culture change initiative, but most of those with whom we spoke were actively involved in working with the CEO and CHRO and across the C-Suite to define and activate a new culture.
This means not just identifying and publicizing values, but actually changing behaviors, and again, it means working across the operations of the entire company. You can’t implement a new business model without changing the way people work. You can’t implement new brand touchpoints without changing the way people act.
And you can’t change the way people act without the full engagement of the entire organization. It’s a communications challenge, yes, but also a leadership and management challenge.
Culture is central to the authenticity concept. You must truly – in every action every day – align the culture with the mission, purpose and values. Because who you are – and how you are seen – is dictated by what you DO, not what you SAY.
Interestingly, most of the new cultures companies are seeking to create share certain attributes: ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­more tech-savvy, data-driven, customer-centric and agile, and less hierarchical. This recognizes that the successful business model of the future will be one capable of constant innovation.
Third, societal value. Increasingly, not only civil society, but also employees and even investors, are demanding that businesses create not just customer and shareholder value, but societal value, as well.
There are three ways to do this:

  • Through core business products and services, such as the Philips commitment to improve the lives of 3 billion people a year by 2030.
  • Through ESG and sustainability practices, such as the Philips commitment to the circular economy.
  • And third – the is the newest – by taking stands on pressing societal issues. The Indian conglomerate, Godrej, took a stand for LGBTQ rights even before the Supreme Court in India decriminalized homosexuality last year, and this was highly motivating for employees, who felt respected and included.

There is significant data showing that companies that define their corporate purpose more broadly are likely to win more employee loyalty, investor interest and permission to operate. CCOs can play a key role in defining and activating this societal value purpose.
Finally, a new approach to digital stakeholder engagement that we call CommTech. Here, CCOs have an opportunity to use with multiple stakeholders the same technology that marketers now use to understand customers at the individual level, and to engage them with content at every step along the journey to shared belief, action, confidence and advocacy that is described in the Page Model. It’s a powerful tool that, if used ethically and authentically, allows enterprises to engage individual stakeholders at scale.
OK, now let’s bring it home by summarizing our themes.
First, the critical importance of authenticity: As I hope I have made clear, at Page, we argue that the role of the chief communication officer is, first and foremost, to help the enterprise define and activate its corporate character based on strong values and a sense of public purpose.
It is not our job to burnish the tarnished image of undeserving clients. Our job is to help our clients to be deserving of trust by creating value for society, in addition to customer and shareholder value.
It is our duty to advocate within our institutions for the values and policies that make them worthy of trust; and then to reach out to all stakeholders to build shared belief around the principles that we hold dear.
Second, in a world beset by tribalism and resentment of those not like us, we have a responsibility to promote diversity and to advocate for opportunity for all.
We can begin with our own profession, which is not as diverse as it should be. We can insist upon more women and people of color in the most senior roles. We can provide equal pay for equal contributions. We can make sure our organizations are truly diverse and inclusive.
Page, in cooperation with several other leading organizations, recently announced a new industry-wide effort, called the Diversity Action Alliance, to make even more progress. We will shortly be asking all our members to take a pledge to diversify their teams and organizations.
Third, it is time to recover our sense of civility. It’s critical to the ability of institutions to build trust. It’s also central to the survival of our free society. In China, where I visited recently, maintaining order is the highest priority. Everyone gets along, and the sense of order makes for a highly functioning society. But there is a lack of diverse voices to enrich decision-making.
In the West, we value diverse voices, but have lost our sense of order. The answer is civility. You can translate that as “respect and kindness for those not like us, or those with whom we disagree.” All of the world’s major religions have an equivalent to “Love thy neighbor.”
When I worked in Washington for a Republican congressman early in my career, he battled with his Democrat counterpart as they led their respective caucuses during the first national energy crisis in the 1970s. The stakes were high, and they battled tooth and nail to get the upper hand in each debate, but they always found a way to compromise for the good of the nation.
At the end of the day when the gavel came down, Bud Brown and John Dingell often were seen walking away from the committee room, arm in arm, laughing and joking. They did not hold grudges. They did not question each other’s motives. They certainly did not hurl childish insults at each other. They respected each other, and they were pals, as were, famously, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
So, the third lesson is this: Incivility may be on the rise, but it is not inevitable. We can argue passionately for our positions, but we also must listen with respect to those who disagree; making it possible to work together, to find solutions.
So that’s it. Three lessons. In a world increasingly divided by tribalism and nationalism, I ask you to join me in promoting authenticity; in embracing diversity; in advancing civility; and, most of all, in building enterprises that are worthy of trust around principles that improve lives for all.
We can do better. We must do better. And we can lead the way.