How—and why—truth is at the center of purpose-driven communication

Omnicom’s John O’Brien and David Gallagher share the insights behind their new book “Truth Be Told” in the keynote for AMEC’s 2021 Summit.

When it comes to understanding the role of purpose in defining corporate value and reputation, John O’Brien begins 100 years ago. Recalling the industrial philanthropists of the early 20th century, O’Brien draws a direct line to the development of the stakeholder model for capitalism—and what it means for the communications function today.

There are not only “demands for companies to behave differently,” he explained in his keynote for AMEC’s 2021 Summit on May 26. They must effectively communicate what they have done.

O’Brien, managing partner, EMEA for Omnicom’s One Hundred Agency, has co-written a book with David Gallagher, president of international growth and development for Omnicom, examining the role of purpose in today’s communications. The book, “Truth Be Told: How Authentic Marketing and Communications Wins in the Purposeful Age,” makes the case that in this era of corporate activism, the ability to live your values will be paramount for growth and success.

Beyond a marketing tool

O’Brien makes the careful case that purpose isn’t just a tool for marketing and communications, but rather must be a natural extension of something deeper and more essential to the organization. In this way, purpose is different from corporate social responsibility (CSR) or environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. It’s the intrinsic expression of a company’s value to society, weighing its benefits and various impacts.

In part, this is driven by a change in the essential audience a company serves.

“There are traditionally three audiences for a business,” O’Brien explained, “investors, customers and employees … Now, with the way the world has moved, a company can be brought down and destroyed by an audience which is none of those.”

He identifies a fourth audience that companies now must serve with their communications—people without a direct stake in an organization but who are willing to go to war over perceived misbehavior or shortcomings. O’Brien says, “the unbridled ability through social media and an appetite for protest that has created a new audience which is society at large.”

The need for truth

To avoid “purpose-washing” or opportunistic, misguided attempts at corporate moralism, O’Brien and Gallagher have placed an emphasis on “truth.” For a company to embody its purpose, it must commit to genuine truthfulness.

O’Brien explains it this way: In the dictionary, something that is “true” is something that is “based on facts rather than invented or imagined and is accurate and reliable.” When it comes to business, “truthful-based businesses” will communicate based on facts, sharing reliable, accurate and verifiable updates.

In a “purposeful business,” the organization will use a fact-based “truth” to show its purpose to stakeholders. “Purposeful businesses have a human-based ‘truth’ at the core of their purpose,” O’Brien explains. That truth could be that the business is there to transport people, to help them be entertained, or to keep them healthy.

It’s a need that is being fulfilled that is directly tied to business imperatives—which gives it the marker of being “true.”

The ‘Truth Effect’

Starting with that “human truth” is what allows a company to be authentic rather than working backward from an external position only to realize it contradicts internal operations. O’Brien and Gallagher call this the “Truth Effect,” where each level leads to the desired outcome of audience trust and goodwill.

O’Brien gives the example of the Walgreens Boots Alliance to walk through the Truth Effect model.

For Walgreens Boots Alliance, the basic human truth it is trying to meet is the need for health, O’Brien posits. From that human need, the “purpose truth” is “to help people lead a healthy and happy life.” The next level is to practice truth, which O’Brien explains as how a company operates in their business.

For Walgreens, that means creating a work culture where health for all stakeholders is prioritized. “It’s imperative that the people working with you in the business are happy and healthy,” O’Brien gives as an example.

The next level is “product truth.” Do your products and services align with that “human truth” you started with? For Walgreens, that’s the products they sell and the investments they make in services and health programs. If all of these levels align, the effect is what audiences feel intrinsically about your brand and whether or not you can be trusted.

Where purpose communication goes wrong

O’Brien suggests that when purpose communications go awry, the cause is more often accidental oversight rather than intentional skullduggery.

As an example, he gives the Fearless Girl campaign from State Street Bank, where the company placed a statue of a young woman in front of the iconic charging bull on Wall Street. The company was later found to have a significant gender wage gap, undercutting its message of equality.

Gallagher finished the presentaion with suggetsions for how communicators can become better advisors when discussing purpose and brand reputation:

1. Invest in listening. “All good communication starts with good listening,” Gallagher says. He breaks down the constituencies you must listen to into three parts:

  •  Transactional audience. These people need to know about deals, offerings, business updates, etc. They need the nuts and bolts about your business, and the message delivered to them is unchanged by purpose-driven efforts.
  • Purposeful audience. This audience might not care about your product or service but care about the impact you have on their wider community.
  • Peripheral audience. This audience not only doesn’t care about your product or service but also has its own agenda that might disrupt your business, from operations to supply chain, etc.

2. Purpose-led stories don’t start with the marketing/PR agency. To be effective and authentic, these stories must come from within.

3. Follow the PACA model. Effective purpose-focused communication follows this model:

  • Purpose: Start by answering: “What are we in business to do?”
  • Achievement: What have you accomplished so far?
  • Commitment: What are you going to do to improve in the future?
  • Aspiration: What is the future that you are hoping to see through your action?

Gallagher ends with a call for better measurement of purpose. While the data is starting to be available, whether that’s the value of employee engagement to the bottom line or other measures that prove the value of a stakeholder model for businesses, Gallagher says communicators and business leaders can do more to show the value of purpose for those who remain skeptical.


Looking to learn more about how purpose communication plays into brand reputation management and crisis response in 2021? Be sure to join us for Ragan’s Crisis Communications Virtual Conference June 10.



2 Responses to “How—and why—truth is at the center of purpose-driven communication”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    What makes Omnicom great is what makes Omnicom clients safer and more affluent: recognition that the top question in buying and voting is not complicated: “How will I benefit? Which choice will benefit me more?”

    Omnicom repeatedly wins in Washington for clients by simplifying. While rivals argue fairness and try to explain their version of economics, Omnicom gets client wins by spotlighting benefits people want.

    In the supermarket. which brand of detergent or paper towels is likely to sell more, the brand whose maker is known for backing an anti-cancer push or a competing brand not so known?

    When you look at how Omnicom has made out in the past five years compared to rivals–and when you see how they do it–you can understand why.

    (Also they pay beautifully for top talent but I’d like to think it what they say even more than how they pay.)

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Look at a key PR question if you agree as I do with the idea of these writers that truth is at the center of purpose-driven communications.

    How successful your PR program will be depends partly ion WHICH truth you select.

    Any of these companies–Amazon, Exxon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, P&G or Walmart–could take a $10 billion hit from publicity-seeking politicians proposing to “tax the rich”” or “break up huge companies.”

    So judge which truth is likely to do these accounts the most good.

    Truth #1: Were already paying huge taxes.

    Truth #2: We can better produce what the public needs if you don’t break us up.

    Truth #3: We’re donating over $1 billion over the next ten years to (a) the Mental Health Society to reduce mass shootings of our children, (b) alliances of minorities and National Organization of Women to increase fairness in jobs, and (c) Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to help find a cancer vaccine.

    When you pick a truth you’ll use to defend a client, you help determine your sucess level in achieving your purpose.

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