Interview with John McLaren
Nothing but the Truth

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John McLaren is Corporate Communications Director at AkzoNobel, the world’s largest coatings company, where he has been responsible for communicating the massive transformation at the company. He challenges our usual approach to working with communications, and he is in Copenhagen Tuesday 23rd.
John McLaren is guest at Kommunikationschefens dag, September 23rd in Copenhagen
You have expressed the opinion that the communications person has to be an outsider in order to do the job and consequently cannot be a member of the company board. Is the free spirit the nature of good communication?
The short answer is “yes”. The Director of Communications has, to some extent, to be an outsider to do his or her job well. You have to be loyal, you have to care. But then you have to be able to distance yourself and provide impartial advice. And, for me, that means being close to the board, but not part of it. To put it another way, corporations need to have relationships just like people do, and to have successful relationships, there has to be a conscience at work. That’s how I view our profession: we are the conscience of the organization; the awkward truth, the reality that no one wants to recognize. And that job of being the organization’s conscience is often best done by someone who enjoys a degree of “trusted outsider” status. In addition, it is my strong belief that this current obsession with being on the board is really very misplaced and stems from a misunderstanding of what boards actually do – which is a lot of housekeeping and financial discussion. Until comms people have broader backgrounds that include areas such as finance, strategy and so on, our value to those discussions is very limited. For that to change, the education and careers paths of people in our profession will need to change too.
How does this approach rhyme with company values such as loyalty and a common effort? Does the communications person always know better?
My view of the role of a communications professional and a company’s values are by no means mutually exclusive: this about being open and honest and providing you best advice. As far as I’m aware, this is not contradictory to the values of any organization I’ve ever dealt with.
Communicating with the media, should the communications person always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Again, there’s a simple answer: “yes”. In the early stages of my career, I worked for Sir Richard Needham, the Minister of Trade in the UK. He was always so honest and so straight – a bit like Boris Johnson in that he placed enormous value on authenticity. I suspect I have absorbed that concern for the authentic and for truth. It’s never let me down. For example, a few years ago, our CEO took a leave of absence because, as we say in Holland, he simply “put too much hay on his pitchfork”. The company had a fierce internal debate about how to handle the news. Should we just not comment, saying it was a private matter? Or should we tell the truth? In the end, we triumphed over the lawyers and traditionalists who wanted to pretend nothing had happened and we issued a statement laying out the issue in a clear and transparent manner. Disaster was averted. On the day of the announcement, the share price actually rose half a per cent and AkzoNobel became a case study in crisis management and good corporate governance.
There is also another reason to “always tell the truth”. With the rise of social media, being authentic and maintaining strong relationships – both of which are built on trust – are paramount in reputation management. Lying or covering up the truth would damage the trust on which our reputation is built. For a chemical company, that is simply a no-no. In that context, total honesty is not only the right thing to do, it is our only option.
You have said that companies should get rid of the quarterly results – how does the negative impact of quarterly results show its influence on the work that is done in the company?
My view on quarterly results is that they become dangerous, if they become the be-all and end-all. Looking at a company through the lens of its quarterly results will tell you one thing and one thing only: its financial performance over a three-month period. The financials themselves simply do not provide enough information on which to create an accurate assessment of a company. Even worse, an unhealthy obsession with quarterly results can drive short-termist actions and behaviours within the organiszation that may even be detrimental to its long-term health. On a related note, I think most of us today define the value of an organization in terms that are more than purely financial. We want to know the value of an organization to society as a whole, not just where its EBITDA level happens to be hovering. My view is becoming increasingly widespread. Take Unilever. One of the first things Paul Polman did when he took over as CEO was to get rid of quarterly results. This is simply the direction in which progressive, forward-looking organizations are moving. 

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