#MeToo: Words Aren’t Enough

November 8, 2018


Since it burst onto the scene a year ago, the #MeToo phenomenon has shone a harsh, bright light on a range of behaviors – harassment, abuse, bullying, discrimination – that violate the dignity and trust of countless individuals. During that time, it’s the communicators at various companies who have been on the front lines, working hard to authentically and honestly articulate their organizations’ values and convey the message that they have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. But this is a situation where communications, no matter how well-crafted or effectively delivered, has its limits.

What we all should recognize by now is that this isn’t a moment, it’s a full-blown movement. Recent events in Washington have further reinforced the reality that this is a cultural shift, complete with all the polarized reactions and political posturing that characterize most public dialogue today. As this movement solidifies into expectations of change, it’s creating serious questions of competence, integrity and trust between organizations and their key stakeholders – from employees to customers, from business partners to regulators and policymakers.

Communications is certainly part of the solution. But we’re in an environment where – according to our trend research – nearly three-quarters of the public expects companies to go beyond mandated regulations and actively work to solve societal issues. What’s more, our recent Authentic Insights report revealed that of the 10 issues engaged U.S. consumers care most about and expect companies to take action on, sexual harassment tops the list.

Clearly, in this time and place, mere words are not enough. Having a strong reputation doesn’t necessarily protect a company when something goes wrong that reflects a new societal standard or expectation. Indeed, the stronger an organization’s reputation is today, the higher the expectations it will face from key audiences and the public.

Furthermore, organizations have to move fast in today’s 24/7 communications environment to preserve their reputations when a crisis hits. A serious crisis situation can go global in under an hour, while companies may take a day or more to make a meaningful response.

In the face of all this, a company’s most important preparations to deal with this issue fall into two categories: stronger cultural foundations and better information.

Companies need to cultivate and reinforce a strong culture of respect and fair treatment, backed up by clear policies that reinforce consistent alignment with that culture. Actions that demonstrate a company’s intentions are essential, such as providing training and education to help people recognize misconduct and making channels available for reporting it. Organizations also need to reach out to third parties who can help review and pressure-test policies and procedures.

Most visibly, a company needs to deliver a strong message from senior leadership about who it is, what it believes, what behaviors are consistent with its culture – and, just as important, which ones aren’t. Those same senior leaders must also be prepared and equipped to take quick and decisive action if their values and policies are violated. In those instances, it’s critical to create the information they will need to support quick decisions about whether and how to react publicly to an issue or event. That requires companies and brands to have a detailed understanding of the values, expectations and political leanings of their employees, customers and business partners.

As communicators, we can help our clients examine internal values, gather current insights and think through potential scenarios. We can prepare them to communicate with their key stakeholders. And, if a crisis does occur, we can help them react and recover.

But, going forward, we as communicators also need to help the companies we serve go beyond preparation and reaction. We need to work with them to anticipate where this movement goes in its second year and beyond. Yes, it’s a movement that’s here to stay, but that’s not to say it will stay the same. #MeToo isn’t just about calling out offenders and removing them from positions of power. Going forward, it’s likely to dig deeper. We can expect it to start getting at the root causes that enabled this problem to become as pervasive as it is and working to ensure that it doesn’t continue.

And that’s where businesses have an opportunity to take a stand, form partnerships and seek to align themselves with the goals of the movement. We as counselors can certainly help them do all that. So long, that is, as they have done the due diligence internally to create a culture that proactively prevents this kind of disrespect and abuse.

It keeps coming back to this: The issues that underlie the #MeToo movement – issues of respect and fair treatment for all – matter more than ever to a lot of people. There’s much that organizations can do to communicate the steps they take to nurture and reinforce a culture of respect. But they must have such a culture in place to begin with; communications can’t conjure it up for them.

Again, this isn’t about words. It’s all about behavior. And as author Stephen Covey observed decades ago, “You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.” It was good advice then. It’s even more relevant today.