Why purpose is everything

Why purpose is everything | Housing communications

Speaking during #digitalhousingweek, Anita Khan, executive director of customer services at See Media client settle, summed up why purpose is everything. In her presentation, she explained how focusing on their organisation’s social purpose made it possible for the settle team to be “instinctively agile” during the first couple of weeks of lockdown.

A commitment to purpose enabled the 9,500-home housing association to successfully adapt, even when crisis as huge as Covid-19 hit.

Purpose is clearly powerful, but what exactly is it, and why is it so important for effective communications?

Purpose is authentic

It’s the reason organisations exist, why teams do what they do, and why individuals’ roles are in place.

Being able to define purpose, and to consistently reiterate key messages around it, are crucial – but only if what is being said matches the experiences of staff, customers and other stakeholders.

When we at See Media conduct stakeholder perception surveys on behalf of clients, the individuals who are able summarise not only what an organisation does, but demonstrate a clear understanding of WHY it does it, tend to be those who have the most positive connections with the organisation, and are therefore most likely to advocate on its behalf.

Meanwhile, employees generally want to believe in their employer’s purpose. In his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work philosopher and author Alain de Botton, wrote:

“When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others. Though we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money.”

Most of us like to have confirmation that our work makes the world at least a little bit better. Authenticity builds credibility, not least amongst those who are most invested in an organisation’s purpose: its internal stakeholders.

Purpose is shared

There’s a famous anecdote about the time president John F. Kennedy went to NASA to give a big speech to inspire the USA to rally behind the Apollo missions. While he was preparing, he happened to speak to a janitor. The president asked, “What do you do here?” – and the janitor replied, “I’m putting a man on the moon.”

Perhaps a bit of a cheesy example, but one that demonstrates that believing in your individual contribution to your organisation’s overarching purpose is motivating and rewarding.

At a time when many people are still working remotely (and perhaps feeling a little invisible), good communications, both internal and external, can help team members – be they chief executives, administrators, housing officers, or electricians – to remember the reasons why your organisation does what it does, and their personal role in helping it along.

Purpose is empowering

The work of Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organisation, is of interest here. Edmondson focuses on psychological safety at work, and she says that, if people feel their organisation’s purpose is more important than their personal insecurities, they are more likely to make useful suggestions.

“Organisations with a higher level of psychological safety [where people feel empowered to speak up] perform better on almost any metric, or KPI, in comparison to organisations that have a low psychological safety score,” she states.

For organisations that want their team members to feel able to give candid feedback, openly admit their mistakes, and learn from one another, an overriding sense of shared purpose can be emboldening. As stated in this previous See Media blog, having a clear mission/purpose (what an organisation is there to do), vision (what it wants to achieve), and values (the way it will conduct itself while getting there), helps to focus everyone’s minds.

Purpose is clarifying

There are so many issues for communications professionals to work with at the moment, and the way our organisations respond to them should depend on the thinking around mission, vision and values that has already taken place.

Just for starters, organsiations’ comms teams could currently be considering how to address the gender pay gap, promote mental health and wellbeing, provide greater opportunity and representation, and support customers and colleagues whose lives have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.

Having a clear sense of purpose should help organisations to judge the extent to which they should be joining conversations, and also help to clarify what they can constructively contribute.

Black Lives Matter, is a specific example; and this blog, published by American PR company Vanguard Communications is a must read on the subject. It outlines how an organisation’s engagement in conversations around Black Lives Matter should align with what they have already said about their purpose.

Internal and external messaging around equality, diversity and inclusivity must be consistent and match an organisation’s structures and actions; and any statement made about work that needs to be done should be based on a plan that is firmly in place.

Purpose is distinguishing

There are a couple of quotes from a book called The Purpose Revolution: How leaders create engagement and competitive advantage in an age of social good, by John Izzo and Jeff VanderWielen that spring to mind. The first is: “A purposeful organisation is one that has built its entire enterprise around this core reason for existence.

And the second is: “We think that connecting people to your purpose may potentially be one of the few sustainable competitive advantages available to businesses.”

The UK housing sector is fortunate in that its core purpose is a given: providing quality, affordable homes and services to those who need them – however, even in such a purpose-driven environment, some organisations are much better at communicating about this than others. Also, some are particularly good at adopting complementary agendas – sustainability, for example – and bringing them into their overarching purpose, setting them apart from their peers.

Purpose is accountable

At the beginning of the lockdown period, See Media’s #CovidComms research found that the vast majority (85%) of the UK Housing communications professionals were finding their work was increasingly valued by others within their organisations.

Half of participants in our survey said they had been working “more closely with executive leadership team” since lockdown. “The usual barriers have, in many ways, been broken down,” explained one respondent.

Now that we’re slowly starting to return to something that feels a bit more ‘normal’, it’s important we maintain the two-way communication that has often been established between comms and exec teams: it’s going to be even more crucial as we navigate our way through the coming months and years.

Speakers at the PR Week Crisis Communications Conference were beginning to talk about communications through potential future waves of Covid-19, and the consensus was that, while stakeholders have given organisations leeway over the last few months, they’re unlikely to tread so lightly in future.

Expect colleagues and customers to begin comparing what organisations said they would do with what they’re actually doing, and holding them to account. The thing about purpose is, it helps individuals to feel a sense of connection with an organisation – so when that organisation doesn’t act in the way an individual expects, it can feel personal.

Communications professionals are there to ascertain what stakeholder expectations are; to facilitate transparent, two-way conversations; to ask awkward questions around progress being made against stated objectives; and to help organisations focus on purpose as they adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

And this work is never-ending – purpose is ongoing, and it must consistently ring true.


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Lydia Stockdale is PR director at See Media