The challenge: A public statement of values for a professional communication graduate program that would represent hundreds of students, alumni and faculty across sectors.


I curated the declaration and led its deployment across platforms. View the online version hereand scroll down to read about the process.

Sept 5, 2019 / 6 min read

Barely a quarter of US employees say they believe strongly in their organization’s values, according to a recent Gallup poll


In an article for the journal Strategy & Leadership, Herman Vantrappen and Rien de Jong use that  bleak outlook to argue for an alternative concept of organizational values, or perhaps skipping the exercise altogether.  


But what about when an organization needs to realign to changes in the world around it that impact its constituents and shift their priorities?


In a previous post I talked about the organic process of a new organizational identity forming around Communication Leadership, starting in 2013, when the program rebranded from "Master of Communication in Digital Media.”


The signaled a shift from techno-optimisim of the digital media revolution to a recognition that principled leadership was essential to guide the immense power of emerging technology.


Here I'm going to unpack the 5 steps we took in articulating that new identity in a public statement that we called “A Declaration of Communication Leadership.” You can check it out in it’s final presented form here, but I’ll focus on the process and form here, rather than content.



Step one: Assess the need and opportunity


As Vantrappen and de Jong suggest: “...leaders, before embarking on a corporate-wide values initiative, [should] consider carefully what problem they are actually trying to address. Would the initiative be a real solution for a real problem?”


Given the shift in identity and affinity of our students that I outlined previously, clearly the answer to that question for Comm Lead was ‘yes.’ 


But further, we had a compelling need take an assertive stance on issues of race, gender, immigration, and social justice — because they are directly impacting our students and the organizations they’ll go on to lead in. As Omar Rodríguez Vilá and Sundar Bharadwaj point out in the Harvard Business Review article Competing on Social Purpose, “consumers increasingly expect brands to have not just functional benefits but a social purpose.” 


Even (or especially) for an educational institution, we can’t just rely on the career advancement benefits our program offers and try to stay above the fray, hoping our constituents will assume we have the best intentions when it comes to social justice. 


Even if there’s a cost, we should take a stand. Indeed, it’s unfair to marginalized groups to leave our stance on these issues unspoken.


Taken together, the moment was clearly right to create a deeper sense of meaning around our program and brand. 



Step Two: Consult your stakeholders


Vantrappen and de Jong suggest that writing values should not be a collective or consensus process, but something done from on high by leaders. But when you have highly credible faculty from fields ranging from UX to community advocacy to media law, some with decades of affiliation with your program, it makes sense to draw on their vision and expertise. 


We brought in an outside consultant, Jenny Asarnow, who did interviews with faculty, staff and alumni asking them what “communication leadership” meant to them and why it was important.


As the subject of one of these interviews myself, I can attest that it was gratifying to be asked for my ideas in the first place, and that the content of the declaration resonated with me because it un-coincidentally reflected some of my beliefs. Indeed, I later had the embarrassing experience of obliviously praising one particular section to Jenny, who responded “well, I think you were the one who said that." 



Step 3: Draft and iterate


Jenny took the results of those interviews and edited them together into a list of qualities, practices, and principals of "communication leaders." 


Director Hanson Hosein, who was the initial visionary of the declaration, added a preamble describing urgency of such a communication leader role, drawing heavily on our Comm Lead Connects event focused on AI and other emerging technology. The strong takeaway from that day-long conference had been the urgent need for those tasked with communicating with the public about emerging tech to be at the table to advocate for it to be deployed ethically and inclusively, in a way that minimized, rather than perpetuating, existing biases.


Our core team took the initial copy through several more drafts, infusing our own interpretations of the program’s values, and optimizing their articulation for the audiences we were each most familiar (prospective students, alumni, community partners, institutional colleagues, etc.)



Step 4: Consult more stakeholders 


Seeking some form of consensus from our student body of hundreds was a daunting idea. But ultimately, it was most important that this declaration resonate with them and prospective students like them. And we were lucky to have a captive audience for research.


We shared the updated draft — a narrowed list of ten theses or qualities characterizing communication leaders — with all 85 students in the second core class, which fit well because the class focused on organizational identity. 


We prompted students to reflect on which of the qualities resonated, which didn’t, and anything they thought we needed to add.


The process of incorporating that feedback was far less difficult than I’d anticipated. The responses were insightful, surprisingly consistent, and identified some important omissions and redundancies. As a result, we winnowed down ten items to seven, combining some and abandoning others.


We also shifted the framing from "qualities of communication leaders" to "core tenets of communication leadership." What had been a ‘who’ became more of a ‘how.’ This shift was based on feedback from students that it would be more inclusive to give new students a vision of what they’d be able to do through the program, rather than innate characteristics they should embody upon arrival. 



Step 5: Curate for impactful deployment


Although the two are often conflated, understanding what you want to say is an entirely separate process from saying it effectively. 


So the end of this months-long process of inclusively identifying and articulating values was the beginning of a new process of deciding where and how to publish those values. 


Charged with managing that deployment, I realized that we had a common but serious challenge of way too much uninterrupted text. 


The solution was to present some of the content visually. We enlisted Kate Hourihan, one of the most talented graphic designers to come through our program, to design icons to represent each  of the tenets. We also reduced them each to a one word essence, a cliffs note from which the written copy would flow: storytelling, technology, values, responsibility, community, advocacy, and leadership. We included examples that demonstrated each tenet in action in our community (e.g. via student projects)


We turned the written preamble section into the script for a video, with a chorus of students and other community members direct addressing the camera, declaring the need for the role of communication leadership in the current moment, articulating it’s meaning, and claiming it as individuals and as a collective.



A few lessons learned: 

— Consider carefully whether the time is right for your organization to articulate values. We may not have been ready to identify values two years ago, and in two years it would likely be too late. 

— The best way to ensure your statement is authentic, and that it lands well with stakeholders, is to include them throughout the process. We thought we knew what we wanted to say at the outset, but our faculty and students turned out to be our strongest resource, and our most important audiences.

— Start early thinking about how you're going to deploy your statement. Our process could have been more efficient if we’d considered the specific assets we were going to create earlier on. 


Next time I’ll look at the prospects and pathways for this declaration to have a meaningful impact for our students in the key areas their future industries and organizations face challenges.