30 de setembro de 2022

Insights from the annual conference of the Page Society, the largest corporate communications organization in the United States


Published Sep 21, 2022 on LinkedIn

In the last three days (September 18th, 19th and 20th) I attended the annual conference of the Page Society in Chicago. The event was limited to members only. It was the first time I participated as a full member of the organization. Of all the events the Page Society holds, this is certainly the most important, the second being the Spring Seminar, which takes place in New York.

The Page Society, as is well known, is one of the largest associations of communicators in the world and the most important in the United States. It brings together CCOs, the heads of business communications, of some of the largest global corporations. It is, in fact, a very exclusive club: there is, for example, a minimum revenue that a company must have for its CCO to apply for a membership. Page is currently made up of roughly a thousand members, of whom approximately 300 are still working their way up to the CCO position and therefore participate in Page Up, while the other 700 are full members of the Society.

Page has been characterized in the past as an entity mostly made up of Americans. Now, however, in keeping with business trends, it is becoming more international. Of its 700 members, about 80% are US citizens and the other 20% are from other regions around the world.

I am one of the five Latin American members and the Page Society’s Country Chair in Latin America, working in Brazil. Other members include Paulo Nassar, who is Aberje’s president and the only academic member from South America, David Grinberg, from McDonald’s, and Nelson Silveira, from GM (both associates of Aberje), along with Adriano Stringhini, former corporate director of Sabesp and currently a board member of Companhia Docas São Sebastião and EMAE. Our mission is to expand the Page community in the region and bring in new members.

In my opinion, what most characterized this year’s conference was an intense effort to promote interaction among the participants. There were approximately two hundred members in person and fifty online. The event was meant to actively engage the members. This was most evident in the Dialogue Project, a panel developed in cooperation with Duke University. It consisted of a simulation exercise in which the participants act as employees of a company facing a crisis. It’s interesting that in this simulation, the CCO is only one of the personas that takes action. Included in the group are representatives from all business sectors: the entire C-Level (CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, Human Resources, Government Relations…) and various state representatives.

This year, the Dialogue Project presented the scenario of a multinational company facing a crisis involving public health issues and business continuity during the emergence of a new pandemic. Although it is believed that for the most part Covid-19 is coming to an end, the corporate world recognizes that new pandemics can emerge. So to avoid being taken by surprise by the next crisis, there has been a great deal of preparation for such an event in the future.

One outcome of this intense interaction among conference members, and which is also one of the guiding principles of the Page Society itself, is the promotion of peer-to-peer networking. CCOs are expected to learn from each other. This conference, in particular, also stressed that in addition to peer-to-peer networking it is also important that CCOs stay in close contact with other corporate professionals – emphasizing the importance of the connection between the head of communications and other areas of the company. Another important issue discussed was the need to consider geopolitical issues when constructing the strategic planning of the corporation.

The current focus was on the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine which affected many brands who had to leave the region and suffer disruption to their reputation. The subject was addressed by Ivo Daalder of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He highlighted the importance of the CCO being well informed about geopolitical issues in order to discuss them with the corporation’s C-Level. Taking action and responsibility on the part of corporations requires active engagement from the communication sector.

This leads to another fundamental idea that can be taken from this conference, and one which I have been asserting in my texts and presentations for some time – the strategy of silence is not beneficial for any organization, whether it is managing a crisis or not. It’s clear that avoiding issues and problems is the worst option for any company. As they say in the “war room,” when the company doesn’t speak up, someone else will.

This idea was reinforced by Randall S. Kroszner from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business in an interview with Shona Sabnis from Tyson Foods. The professor talked about the increasing need for companies to have the courage to speak out on difficult issues and engage in sensitive matters. This requires a significant effort from CCOs and communicators in general. It was further supported by the conference review, carried out by a panel with the participation of Damon Jones (Procter & Gamble), Michael Gonda (McDonalds), Maril MacDonald (Gagen MacDonald) and moderated by Jon Berghoff (XCHANGE Approach). The discussion included a range of topics: economic crisis, pandemics, war, geopolitical conflicts, environmental crisis and hunger. Clearly, these problems are an indication of the size and complexity of the issues that companies need to be informed about and proactively address.

In my view the highlight of the conference was the talk by Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. The tourism sector was one of the most affected by the pandemic and Duffy stressed the importance of humor when managing a crisis. There is an almost unanimous feeling that the world is very tense, and this affects us personally and hinders relationships and thought processes. As a leader, being able to bring levity and humor to the negotiating table is an important differentiator, often having beneficial effects on corporate relations.

Duffy also addressed the ESG issue in depth. This is a subject that is usually seen as a demand from society of companies. Yet, she highlighted the example of Carnival Cruise Line, which excels in ESG, even though such measures are not among the top five factors that attracts its public. This points to the discrepancy between the demands of the public as a part of civil society, while at the same time being a consumer group, as well as, the difference between corporate responsibility and commercial interests – important distinctions to be included in the ESG debate.

The last day of the conference ended with a panel on press relations. Topics such as the focus on the local media were discussed, while not losing sight of the broader global media; and how to build a good relationship between corporate communications professionals and the media – which has always been considered a long-term process of years, sometimes even decades of dedication.

A panel of three journalists – Annie Gasparro of The Wall Street Journal, Jim Kirk of Crain’s Chicago, and Bob Sirott of WGN Radio in a interview conducted by Jon Harris of Conangra Brands – made it clear that the best time to establish a good relationship with the press is not during a crisis. Just as with friendships, it’s not only when you need them that you should be there. A healthy relationship depends on trust, and that can only be built over time. It therefore depends on the constant dedication of the CCO, and this effort should be carried out in an ethical, coherent and transparent manner.

The conference was filled with much more than can be reported here. The issue of ethical consistency, for example, along with the difficulties in communicating sensitive decisions, were addressed by a panel consisting of AnnaMaria de Salva of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Josep Catlla of Sanofi, and Franz Paasche of Paypal, and moderated by Seema Kathuria of Russell Reynolds Associates. The subject of the economic sector’s social responsibility, beyond ESG, was also addressed by Russell Dyer, from Mondelēz International, and Vince Macciocchi, from ADM and moderated by Perry Yeatman, from Save the Children. The panel focused on the problem of hunger: today, one person dies of hunger in the world every two seconds. This will likely become worse with the coming environmental difficulties, pandemics, and geopolitical conflicts. Companies, as outlined above, will need to take sides and act on these issues, not only because of social responsibility but also for the simple fact that they will need to thrive in these scenarios as well. Many insights and ideas were discussed concerning the importance of storytelling, a crucial tool for the communicator to deal with the issues, situations, and problems we are facing today. Dr. Thomas Caulfield, for example, CEO of GlobalFoundries, highlighted the difference between storytelling and the simple communication of ideas and positioning. Also honored were Madan Bahal, co-founder and director of India’s largest PR firm, Adfactors PR, and Shelley Spector, founder of the Museum of Public Relations, which is located in New York (you can learn more about this at https://www.prmuseum.org/) – among other meetings and discussions.

Finally, there was a lovely gala dinner at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago – a fitting environment to remind us how the laws of nature are used to develop human industry: a symbolically profound perspective on the meaning of entrepreneurial work.

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