Remarks from 2018 Page Center Awards honoree John Onoda
March 2, 2018
My wife will tell you that I’m not an emotional person. In fact, when the two of us are alone at home, she sometimes calls me Mr. Spock, to signal that I need to try harder to connect with human feelings.
Tonight I don’t have to work at making the connection. I am feeling three distinct emotions. The first is gratitude, to the Arthur Page Center, to colleagues and mentors who have taught me and supported me over a long career, and to Page Center founders Ed Block, Jack Koten and Larry Foster, gentlemen I knew although I wish I’d had the time to know them even better. And, as always, I’m most grateful my wife, Teresa, who has made me a better person – a better human.
The second emotion I’m feeling is dismay. I think we’re all here tonight because we feel integrity in public communications is now more important than ever. And why do we feel that? Because things are heading in the wrong direction. It feels like the Titanic is going down!
The people in this room don’t need anyone to tell them the many, many reasons integrity and trust are withering in the public’s view of leaders and institutions. After all, we’re the ones who have to deal with a worsening communications environment every day. We all see that in the absence of trust and integrity, cynicism, opportunism, greed and the abuse of power flourish. We watch with sinking hearts as cynical people manipulate the system to achieve positions of power, only to lead their followers, constituencies or flocks down the wrong path. We are disheartened as civil discourse becomes impossible.
These are the characteristics of a failed state!
With this disturbing situation in mind, I thought hard about what I’d say tonight. I asked myself a lot of questions. Among them was, “Who conducts public communication?” The answer, I think, is changing rapidly.
The people in this room used to be part of a rather closed network of large companies, government bodies, PR agencies and the news media. Among us we had a near monopoly on words in the public space. Without our involvement, no average citizen – and even many powerful ones – could make a dent on the public consciousness.
That time is over. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially reach billions, start a public discussion or even a movement. Anyone can promote their story and version of the truth – which they do, making it harder and harder to sort fact from fiction.
And much of what does manage to reach us through the maelstrom of words and images is negative, biased and sensationalized. You’d never know that most people are normal, honest and good; that most companies and institutions function as they are intended, that they try to obey the law and do their best.
It’s a sad observation that today when people, organizations or institutions say something in public, everyone instinctively awaits the accusation or revelation that the statement was misleading or inaccurate. Skepticism and cynicism toward communications have become second nature to most listeners. This leads them to assume disparities between what leaders say and what they actually do; between the values they express and the values (or lack of values) revealed by their action
So what the heck can we do about all this?
Past recipients of this award have cited the Page Principles in their remarks; and I thought I’d follow their example but with a more narrow focus.
I’m going to refer to just one of the Page Principles – “Prove it with Action.”
Please note that the principle is not prove it with words. Nor does it say prove it with press releases. Tweets. Advertisements. Op-eds. Photo-ops. Full-page ads. Blogger exclusives. And everything else in our bag of tricks.
It is “Prove it with action."
This principle is powerful in its simplicity and insight. It is especially relevant to our current predicament because integrity is mostly a matter of acting on your values or fulfilling your promises.
Today a significant portion of our population believes that their government and big business no longer operate according to a set of values, especially fairness, honesty and integrity. They feel their politicians and other kinds of leaders have not lived up to their promises. They think the news media is biased.
So what can do about this?
“Prove it with action.”
It is not enough for those of us in this room to try to get our CEO’s and chairmen, our clients and other kinds of leaders to simply say the right things, to get out the perfect sound bite. It is not enough to get all the facts right. It’s not even enough to be completely truthful: because all of this could reside solely in the world of words and words are no longer enough.
The best path forward is for us to become much more open and forceful advocates for better actions taken by leaders in the public and private sectors – the people many of us advise and influence. This requires us taking on the uncomfortable role of the conscience of the company, the naysayer, the wet blanket. It means we have to take on entrenched beliefs such as the notion that decisions must be made primarily for the short-term financial benefit of investors; or to win the support of politicians; or to buy peace with activist investors; or to hold on to key talent even if individuals are behaving in abhorrent ways.
We’re going to have to put ourselves on the line much more than we have in the past. We’ve got to talk about uncomfortable, preachy things like ethics, fairness, trust and integrity with people who can influence our compensation and our careers.
We shy away from being this kind of advocacy because we fear eye-rolling and ridicule; or, in my case, not because I feared derision but because I stubbornly maintained that ethical considerations should not be “owned” by any one function, that they should be of concern to everyone in an organization not just the communicators. In hindsight, maybe I used that rationale because I was just too busy or just too lazy to fully take on the challenge. But, also in hindsight, I wish I’d done more.
Now, a few of you may have noted that I did not mention the third emotion – beyond gratitude and dismay – that I’m feeling tonight.
I feel hope because something like the Page Center exists, because there are giants in our industry who care about integrity in public communications and because the people really want communications that are worthy of their trust. I feel hope because I know the quality of the people in this room and I know that if you put your minds to it, you can generate a ripple of positive change, a ripple that may become a powerful wave.
I’m at the back end of my career, but many of you are near or at your peak. You have years, even decades, to advocate for the Page Principle “Prove it with action,” to argue that values must be integral to decision-making, to speak truth to power.
I believe you can make a difference. Maybe the Titanic won’t go down. Maybe we’ll patch the hole, get the pumps working and get back on course.
I have hope.
Thank you for supporting a worthy cause and a worthy institution.
These remarks were written by John Onoda, an honoree at the 2018 Arthur W. Page Center Awards for Integrity in Public Communication. He shared these words with more than 200 public relations professionals and journalists at the Page Center's second annual awards dinner on Feb. 21 in New York City.