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Business blizzard

A couple dozen top executive and organizational communicators gathered at University of Virginia’s prestigious Darden School of Business last month for grand purpose of advising the faculty on the state and the future of leadership communication.

They left the stately grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University fairly reeling. 

The executives, from McDonalds, Equifax, Cox Automotive, UPS, Pfizer, Target Corp. and others, had been asked to help Darden’s Management Communication faculty to “ensure that our curricula and teaching practices continue to be relevant to today’s market realities.”

Two days of conversation left them humbled by the near-impossibility of defining today’s roiling market realities, let alone practicing effective communication management at this disorienting moment in American history—or preparing young people to practice it.

The Chatham House Rule that prevailed at the Darden meeting prevents me from quoting participants in this conversation, beyond its progenitors, Darden Assistant Professor June West and longtime Coca-Cola and UPS communication executive Steve Soltis, who is now an executive-in-residence at Darden along with his day job as a principal at MAS Leadership Communication.

But I can tell you the crashing realities they grappled with:

Even in a simplified, America-centric version of the situation, companies and nonprofits are standing astride a nation split in two—and taking fire from all sides, in a kind of cultural and political and economic civil war.

Corporate constituencies have always had varied interests. But in the current context, they have dizzying and contradictory claims on corporate loyalty. Groups of employees, investors, suppliers and customers are not only set against one another but split within by differing and passionately held attitudes and values.

And, in the context of the current political atmosphere—President Trump’s name was rarely uttered during these conversations, as participants correctly understood that these issues far transcend Trump—urgently held.

A secular society increasingly distrustful of its own government and with a press discredited as “fake” by large swaths of the public, is singing, as one Darden participant put it, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

And to whom are people turning for principled leadership and cultural compass points? Of all things, corporations and other large institutions. With an erratic president and a discredited intellectual elite, people need someone to trust, someone to know the responsible, sensible, sustainable “corporate” view on gun control, transgender restrooms, gay marriage, Confederate monuments, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Obamacare, tax reform, kneeling during the National Anthem and climate change.

What social activists long decried as amoral self-interest in corporations is now treasured as impartial interest in sustainability. “Trump can pull out of Paris,” said one participant. “But UPS can’t.”

Corporations are now social arbiters by default.

And so organizations that heretofore intelligently focused almost exclusively on a single issue of particular strategic importance to them—global trade, for instance, or energy policy—now are daily and publicly presented with petitions to sign and stands to take for or against causes or policies that constituents care about. Yes or no. Fer us or agin us? Which side are you on?

Clearly, organizations can’t afford to weigh in on every issue that comes down the pike. They have “statement fatigue,” as one communicator calls it. But in an increasing number of cases (and on an increasing number of days every year), traditional institutional silence is now strategic suicide.

And if you think the top communication executives at these institutions know what to do about it, you would be wrong. In many hours of conversations at Darden these execs expressed theories, offered brainstorms, shared reactions. They talked about creating quiet and contained “micro-communications,” with small groups of constituents. They discussed the need to acknowledge social issues and differing opinions without making grand and final pronouncements. And they recognized that there is no single approach that works for every organization, and that each industry, company, brand and CEO must make a unique path, using some guesswork and gut feel along the way.

Now how on earth are you going to teach all that to business school students?The participants in this meeting, who will serve for three years as part of a Darden Leadership Communication Council, agreed that in order to navigate the current business communication world, students needed a grounding in much more than the written and oral communication skills in which Darden expertly steeps them now.

They need management skills to understand how to employee communication strategically, rather than reactively.

They need a broad liberal arts education required to see the social, cultural and historical context in which their organization operates.

And they need not merely the high emotional intelligence required for corporate communication, but something close to emotional genius needed to handle corporate politics in the age we’re living in.

I imagine your response amounts to, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

And my answer on behalf of the Darden Leadership Communication Council, on which I, too, will serve for three years to help the Darden faculty adjust their curriculum for the modern moment is, “Thanks. We’ll need it.” —DM