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Leadership: Set the Tone From the Top and Make a Difference

 via  Guardian Professional

The problem isn’t lack of libraries, says Palesa Morudu, managing director at the Cape Town-based social enterprise: “It’s that the children don’t want to read the book in the libraries.”

Cue the Harmony High series. Based on a fictitious high school, the books touch on romance, drugs, family – “things that kids can identify with,” says Morudu. Titles include Jealous in Jozi, Broken Promises and the hard-hitting Too Young to Die. The authors hold workshops with students to ensure the books resonate with their audience.

The formula is working. FunDza, the not-for-profit arm that Cover2Cover set up to distribute the books, was recently named in Fast Company’s list of Top 100 Most Innovative Companies. The judges drew particular attention to the organisation’s mobile site, which hosts Cover2Covers’ titles as well as enabling students to publish their own work. FunDza’s mobi-library currently counts 350,000 registered users.

Compared to the big players in the media industry, this small South African startup is a minnow – its clear social mission also differs from the industry mainstream. Even so, it presents some vital clues for any company looking to breathe real meaning into its brand.

Tone from the top

First and foremost, meaning comes down to leadership. Integrity can’t be faked. Few large media companies today lack an ethical code of conduct or a corporate responsibility charter. For those messages to have credibility, however, business leaders have to reflect these in their leadership style and their decision-making.

Jez Frampton, chief executive at branding agency Interbrand, insists that business leaders can’t pass the buck on this agenda: “Deciding where our company goes long term and talking about our corporate citizenship behaviours, these things are on my desk.”

It’s a bold stance to take, and one that doesn’t always coincide with the kind of conventional business logic that fits so well on PowerPoint presentations. “It needs someone who is visionary, smart and persuasive because such a perspective can be difficult to understand and to communicate,” adds Christian Toennesen, a media sector expert at corporate responsibility consultancy Carnstone.

It’d be wrong to write off the industry entirely. Jeremy Darroch, for instance, has done a lot to champion issues such as cycling and rainforest protection during his time in the top job at British broadcaster BSkyB. Likewise, Jay Hunt is credited with explicitly spelling out Channel 4’s role as an “agent of social change” in her role as the broadcaster’s chief creative director.

Authentic messages

A second lesson centres on authenticity. Marketing managers would love to imagine they are solely responsible for creating a brand’s identity. They don’t. In today’s social media age, the online public increasingly influences how brands are perceived. When the two fall into sync – brand message and audience perception – that’s where authenticity is found.

Brand owners need to know how to strike this “perfect pitch”, explains Bryan Welch, publisher of Mother Earth News and author of Beautiful and Abundant. Cover2Cover achieves this not only through its content (Harmony High is based on a typical township high school), but its product delivery too; 72% of South African youth have mobile phones, a recent Unicef report (PDF) reveals.

“If you run a magazine about the manufacturing of cardboard containers, you need to understand what’s important to people who manufacturer cardboard containers. Their concerns, interests and passions should be your concerns, interests and passions,” Welch states.

Purposeful direction

Last but not least, Cover2Cover demonstrates the importance that a sense of purpose can bring. Palesa Morudu and her colleagues passionately believe in their product. They don’t only publish books. They’re involved in public advocacy debates around child literacy issues; they participate in community campaigns for better public libraries; they speak about youth literature at book festivals, and so forth. “We love what we do, and we have a lot of fun doing it,” she enthuses.

How many mainstream media bosses can say they feel the same (and really mean it)? A handful, perhaps. Arianna Huffington at least has the rhetoric right. Founder of the online newspaper Huffington Post, she is one of 14 inaugural members of the so-called B Team – a business-led initiative to prioritise people and planet alongside profit. “The pursuit of short-term profit at the exclusion of everything else isn’t working for anyone,” Huffington wrote at the B Team’s launch back in June.

She called on media companies like her own to change tack: “There is a real danger that by focusing exclusively on what is not working and what is dysfunctional, we are missing out on spotlighting the leaders and organisations already taking steps to change the way we do business around the world.”

The media industry has a long way to go in that regard. Too few media brands are meaningful because too few media companies espouse a genuine sense of meaning. That’s a shame. Why? Because the media industry provides a vital service to society: informing, illuminating, inspiring.

It all comes down to where a company’s “North Star” lies, according to Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder at B Lab, a US non-profit organisation that certifies businesses as sustainable. “If your North Star is ad sales and circulation and ratings, then you will effectively journey towards that North Star and do whatever it takes to get there,” he reasons.

In contrast, the 46 media companies that carry the B Corp seal are unashamedly idealistic. Their guiding mission is to use the tools and resources at their disposal to “engage citizens to create a better world”. Simple as that, says Coen Gilbert.

There’s no reason that leadership, authenticity and a sense of purpose need to be the preserve of the minnows. Yes, it’s easier for small, privately owned enterprises to go their own way. But every media company has it in them to build a meaningful brand. It just takes individual leaders to buy the vision and act on it. There, a heroic plot for Cover2Cover’s next novel.