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The Power of People’s Voices in Action

10/30/2020
— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO and Founder 

When creating our 2025 business plan, our team decided we needed a rallying cry to articulate our forever goal to put people and purpose first. After some brainstorming, we landed on the message: “WE Rise.”  

This spring, when we unveiled our vision across the globe, the resounding employee feedback was positive. It took me by surprise when later a colleague alerted me to a conversation in one of our employee resource groups. A discussion noted that “WE Rise” felt like language co-opted from the U.S. civil rights movement; “triggering” was the word one brave person used to describe the message.  

Although I initially liked the message’s call to “rise,” my worry was that it was less than humble. However, I still resonated with the declaration. I did not see the connection to the U.S. civil rights movement and appreciated the input from our employee resource group. In our enthusiasm for the concept, this angle had been missed. This drives a point: We must examine the broad actions we take, particularly when addressing systemic racism.  

This messaging statement might seem like a small choice, but it brought a reminder to always include a broad group of our most important stakeholders — our people — when making any decision. To run a relevant, successful and purpose-driven organization, we must listen, learn and lean heavily on our inside voices. When our employees experience an inclusive, supportive and collaborative environment, they are more likely to align together on a business mission; internal audits and awareness of employee sentiment are vital.  

USC Annenberg’s 2021 Relevance Report underlines the necessity to channel the passions of internal teams. The aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd is only one example illustrating a team needs to know their brand’s stance on important issues. Recent research we have conducted with Quartz Insights emphasizes the same point of fueling the passion of internal teams. Of 200 senior executives queried, 87% believe they will successfully adapt their approach to employee engagement due to recent events. However, less than 20% are prioritizing investments to address factors like emotional health, equity and inclusion, and culture.  

This stark ratio illustrates a team’s need to own their purpose to be successful, and advertising alone will not cut it. In addition, agility and adaptability are critical. This means building in a new layer of feedback among diverse voices and incorporating that across every touchpoint.  

Leaders need resilience to map their way through input. With insight into the declared intentions and ambitions behind our initial language choice of “WE Rise,” I might have responded to our employee resource group’s input with, “No, we’re moving forward.” After hearing the context behind the input, I understood why concerns were raised. As leaders, we must know when to be the catalyst for change and when to bring our teams with us. However, we must also discern when to change because of new learnings.   

Constant learning and growth can be uncomfortable, but it is important to work through discomfort to continue our evolution as inclusive leaders and brands. Around the globe, people took to the streets and risked their lives amid a pandemic so their voices could be heard. It is mandatory we listen to their voices with the intention to act. To evolve successfully in today’s world, we must be sure we have broad representation to showcase the power of our people’s voices in action.  

This essay is one of the featured contributions to the 2021 Relevance Report from the USC Center for Public Relations. The report is a collection of 46 forward-looking essays that examine the future of PR and communications through the lens of USC Annenberg academics, students and industry professionals. You can view this essay and download the entire report from annenberg.usc.edu/relevance