Review: Truth Be Told

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Truth Be Told: How authentic marketing and communications wins in the purposeful age
By John O’Brien and David Gallagher
2021, Kogan Page, 235 pages


The stakeholder capitalist manifesto

In the revealing biographical essays that front this volume, John O’Brien writes: ‘in 2010, having become disillusioned by the relative failure of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to change business behaviour in the wider sense, I embarked upon creating a post-CSR proposition, helping contribute to much of the now accepted language and thinking around ethical purpose in business.’ 

The next key starting point for this book is the summary of three phases of capitalism: shareholder capitalism (as championed by economist Milton Friedman); state capitalism (as seen in China); and stakeholder capitalism (as espoused here by Klaus Shwab of the World Economic Forum).

‘Stakeholder capitalism requires not only open and transparent communication, but also vigilance. Companies have a duty to combat the viral spread of misinformation that’s (intentionally or not) misleading or provocative, ensuring the safekeeping of their stakeholders’ private data, and take action to prevent or stop cyber security threats,’ Shwab writes.

It’s a book about purpose. Yet the authors warn early on about ‘the misunderstanding that purpose is purely a means of marketing or communicating a message about a business, rather than being the core of why and how a business exists.’

‘Purpose and values [shouldn’t] fall into purely becoming a communication exercise,’ they write.

These authors provide a breadth of perspective when discussing how purpose has emerged from philanthropy, through corporate community involvement to corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

One author (Gallagher) comes from a public relations background; the other (O’Brien) has a background in advising on responsible business for which he was awarded an MBE – though both now work for Omnicom, based in London.

How’s this for an example of the book’s clarity of thought? They simplify the purposeful comms process to the following four steps (where they write ‘client’, you can interpret this as ‘organisation’; ‘they/their’ could be ‘you/your’):

  1. Know your client – you must understand ‘why’ they exist, their truth, their purpose
  2. Know what they want to achieve – understand the desired impact on their purpose
  3. Know what you can do to assist them – how you fit within their team and strategy
  4. Know how to tell their story – an authentic, credible story that embodies purpose

And how about this as your manifesto – combining as it does the core concepts of purpose, strategy, leadership, culture, reputation and governance in one paragraph?

In leading businesses, purpose will sit at the core and permeate all aspects of operations. As such it has a huge significance as a truly embedded strategy, and alongside behaviour-setting, guiding leadership, will build culture and shape its reputation. It transcends functions, affecting manufacturing, production and service provision; it is central to how the people of the business are recruited, retained and incentivized; it is key to shaping the messaging and communications activities and ultimately is the foundation for the financial management, reporting and associated governance… Purpose manifests itself in the overarching value of the business. (O’Brien and Gallagher 2021)

If you need help untangling CCI from CSR from ESG these authors can help.

‘ESG is made up of non-financial indicators, such as carbon reduction, governance and pay policies etc, which are, by today’s societal expectations, necessary to give assuredness that a business is alive to issues which could, if not handled intelligently, jeopardize the long-term success of the business… It is an effort, developed mostly over the last 20 years in particular, to present an accurate and auditable assessment of how the business is treating its employees, responds to environmental issues, manages its engagement with supply chains, and its general trust issues.’

This book advocates understanding and will help with breaking down barriers: between internal and external comms, between marketing and communication, between HR and PR.

This approach leads to insights in how to approach marketing and communication. ‘Rather than paid influencers and expensive TV actors, the most effective brand ambassadors are more likely to be ‘normal’ employees.’

It also leads to this advice. ‘Purpose must never be owned by a specialist team, or be seen as the responsibility of any individual role. In [John O’Brien’s] words, ‘It must never become an occupation of the few; it must always be the preoccupation of the many’.’

The authors guide us through corporate culture (‘The way in which a business manifests its beliefs and ideas and which affects how it does business and how its people behave’); also values and ethics (‘These terms are often and mistakenly used interchangeably, but they are different.’)

They then turn to the how and who of purposeful communication. ‘Purposeful marketing and communications does not replace the hard work that needs to go into market segmentation, pricing decisions, promotional considerations or any of the numerous concerns of a viable business.’

Yet ‘purposeful businesses interact with purposeful audiences’ and the authors outline the attributes of these audiences. One of these is their interconnectedness. Interactions with these audiences start, of course, with listening.

How you communicate should involve stories rather than messages (the authors quote The Cluetrain Manifesto – ‘markets are conversations’ – earlier, but at this point resist reminding us that ‘there’s no market for messages’.)

The authors propose a useful framework for analysing potential stories. On one axis is plannable versus unplannable; on the other axis is internal versus external. Most attention will probably be devoted to unplannable external events such as natural disasters, political developments and cultural or social trends.

This book is an intelligent and powerfully-argued manifesto for change, backed up by a succession of useful consultants’ models that can be applied to different clients and circumstances. So it’s intellectual and practical: what more could you want?

Just don’t be misled by the title: this is not primarily a book about our post-truth age; instead it’s the best book written about purpose and why this matters to business, society and the planet, and the role marketing and communication plays in purposeful organisations. 

I’ve described it as ‘The stakeholder capitalist manifesto’ but was tempted by ‘The capitalist manifesto’ as a closer match to Marx and Engels – and also the Cluetrain Manifesto – and in recognition that this is an important book published at an opportune moment.