Opinion: Authentically walking the walk

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THE absence of what is said, can speak louder than the words spoken, writes Courtney Malengo. The same can be true of an action versus inaction. Customers and employees alike are scrutinising organisations more intensely than ever before – a byproduct of pandemic lockdowns, a rise in social justice movements, rampant disinformation, and a growing political divide.

Many companies are quick to jump on culturally relevant bandwagons. If true to the company’s brand, it can bolster consumer and employee affinity. However, if consumers perceive something to be a money-making ploy, a la Juneteenth ice cream, it sparks fierce backlash. Employees are equally attuned to corporate greed and when communications smack of dismissive lip service, rather than genuine transparency, it’s no wonder unionisation is on the rise. The simple fact that many in management were shocked that employees did not want to return to in-person work signifies just how out of touch some are with the pulse of the workforce. While unions will not solve all woes, flirting with unionisation does indicate employees do not feel heard or respected. 

In an age where people are vilified for differing opinions, we ought to be more concerned about fostering an environment of conversation and respect, so we can communicate with those who have different opinions than us. That starts with organisational communication and how executives communicate with their leaders and team members. It isn’t easy being a leader right now, but the leaders that prioritise communication will rise to the top and carry their companies through the storms. In tumultuous times, employees and consumers need reassurance. As trust in government and media further erodes, coupled with warnings of a recession, people are looking to businesses to solve societal challenges. 

According to Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, 58 per cent of people will buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values. Approximately 60 per cent will choose a place of work based on their beliefs and values, while 80 per cent will use that same criteria to invest. Nearly one out of two respondents viewed government and media as divisive, 48 per cent and 46 per cent respectively. 

Transparency and authenticity are often dismissed as buzz words, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the underlying message and importance of those traits in communication. To clarify, transparency does not mean you have to tell everyone everything. Leaders must be judicious in how information is treated, knowing the right time and the right place to share certain information. It’s a tightrope every seasoned communicator must walk as they counsel their executive teams in how to navigate bumpy terrain.  

True authenticity fosters trust, builds bridges, and brings reconciliation. Communication is the bedrock of fostering that trust. When the communications team of any organisation is relegated to helping people wordsmith a letter or proofread colleagues’ emails, it’s a disservice to the strategic skillset and insight fellow communications professionals possess. In theory, the solutions to these problems are simple, but in practice it’s hard because it requires critical thinking, strategy, forethought, and intentionality. Communication is often cited as a priority, but like many things, it frequently falls to the backburner. 

In a culture that demands instant gratification and glorifies charismatic CEOs who behind closed doors are unrelenting dictators, the sad reality is most people don’t have the grit or fortitude to focus on their communication long-game. It isn’t fun because it requires ongoing work and refinement, and it requires us to look within ourselves. That isn’t the answer most people want to hear, but it is the answer that is necessary to improve outcomes across the board, from company culture and customer satisfaction to enhanced operations and return on investment. 

Communicators and leaders alike need to be in the business of fostering trust. A key component of cultivating that trust is by doing what you say you are going to do – talking the talk and walking the walk. When it is not possible to meet certain requests, for whatever the reason, it does mean thoughtfully responding to those requests and explaining why. It also means that whatever the organisation promises, it delivers upon. 

Authentic leaders know how to admit they are wrong, or when they’ve missed the mark. They exhibit follow-through while honouring their commitments and intentionally connect with others through word and action. Authentic leaders are mindful of how their words and actions will be perceived by others. 

When companies and executives talk the talk and walk the walk, employee satisfaction increases, and when employee satisfaction is high, employees deliver a better experience for customers. All of that, in turn, increases customer satisfaction and enhances the company’s bottom line. These outcomes are now possible because of an environment of trust and authenticity. 

Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanise growth. From concept to completion, Spark + Buzz designs creative and strategic solutions through branding, marketing, and public relations services. Malengo is an accredited public relations professional with a master’s in communication and organisational leadership from Gonzaga University.