The age of illusion – is it over?

Is the age of illusion over? Ketchum global CEO Rob Flaherty thinks so and used his platform at the CIPR International Maggie Nally Lecture to explain why.

This is a marvellous perspective and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Excerpts from Rob Flaherty's recent speech at the Palace of Westminster follow.

My core observation: illusions have been around for a long time. Some are beneficial and essential. Some are very dangerous. Some exist at the geopolitical and societal level. Some illusions are within the world of business, corporate reputations and brands. Some are in our personal lives.
But the current confluence of new social technologies, globalisation, changing expectations and extreme transparency has led to a shift in power from institutions to individuals that virtually eliminates the ability to sustain an illusion. I, for one, welcome the change. I strongly encourage you to embrace the change. Whether you do or not, the end of illusion requires a fundamental transformation in the role we play as counsellors and requires new solutions for this new era.

Many illusions deliver very positive results.  Sometimes, positive illusions are just plain fun. Throughout history, leaders of every kind… leaders in government, leaders in religion, leaders in business… in every human endeavour… leaders have, with mixed results, attempted to create an illusion.
In ancient Japan and China, the masses believed their supreme leaders were literally gods with super powers. They were hidden away in palaces, shrouded in secrecy. That wouldn’t work today. You’d be getting Twitpics and Vines and MixBits and Instagrams from inside the royal chambers.

The illusion of strength and willpower that Churchill created built a bridge through to late 1941 when the US finally joined forces with the Allies to collectively defeat Hitler.

Illusions are all around us. At times that begs the question, is everything an illusion? Relationships? Religion? Currency? Currency is certainly an illusion – propped up by a collective willingness to believe in a tangible standard that no longer exists.

…a cascade of evidence that we have reached the end of illusion.
Everywhere in the world, social technologies are accelerating the shift in power from institutions to individuals, everywhere from Beijing to Cairo and Kiev to London, Pyongyang to Peoria.  Transparency, speed, access, a rapid shift in power. All signs of the end of illusion.

Clearly it’s just about impossible for a public figure to have a separate private life.
Our own research at Ketchum shows a stunning disappointment with political leaders across the world. We do an annual global survey on perceptions of leaders and leadership.
The level of disappointment in our political leaders in the 2013 survey was striking. Just 21 per cent overall said political leaders are effective. Here in the UK that number was only 12 per cent of leaders are effective. Does that sound about right?  In South Africa it was 11 per cent, and France nine per cent. You’d think you could poll higher than nine percent just from relatives of politicians alone.
It seems impossible for that to get any worse but 40 per cent of us expect we’ll have even less confidence in politicians this year.

And on the business front we could probably spend the whole night sharing examples of business leaders who profess one value, and then who act in a directly contradictory manner. They say: "Proudly Made in our Country," and outsource their jobs to India. They donate to children’s charities in one market and employ child labour in another.  They claim staff are their greatest asset then downsize by half. They claim environmental responsibility as a fundamental value, and blithely pollute in pursuit of profits.
The thing is, not only do they get caught today, but their disillusioned consumers punish them where it hurts. Sales. Our research found that overwhelmingly, consumers who are unhappy with an organisation's leadership will buy less from that organisation or will boycott it all together. There is a concrete, bottom-line consequence from saying one thing and doing another.

Solutions for the Post-Illusion Era

So now we come to the point when I should be prescriptive with solutions for the post-illusion era.  Here are four ways to respond to this new reality.
1. Embrace Transparency
2. Focus on Character
3. Unite Public and Personal Personas
4. Mind the Gap

Number One: Embrace Transparency.
Stop fighting it. Make it part of your business strategy. Make it central to your offence, not just defence. Use it to your advantage to listen and improve. The feedback is gold. 

Number Two: Focus on Character
Since everyone is going to see everything, those of us in the reputation business have to focus more on actions than words, more on reality than illusion.  Another way of saying this is that we have to focus on the character of the company and its people. 

Number Three: Unite Your Public and Personal Personas
Increasingly, as individuals and company executives the gap between our business life and personal life is closing. And if the two are very different, it will cause problems. We see this in celebrities’ lives, we see it in politicians’ lives. Now that scrutiny is coming to our business lives. 

Number Four: Mind the Gap. 
Mind the gap between actions and words, between stated beliefs and actual behaviour. Between brand promise and brand delivery. And it starts at the top. I think every CEO and CMO should have a Mind the Gap sign in their office. Indeed, I think the chief marketing officer title should be changed to the brand performance executive – more responsible for promise-keeping than promise-making. 

You remember the Luddites. They were the artisans who opposed the mechanisation of weaving. Some smashed the machines that they feared would replace them. They wanted to maintain the illusion that they could maintain the status quo and prevent the industrial revolution.
But the Luddites couldn’t halt the advance of technology. Nor can we.

Read the whole speech at

Eric Winton

Director, New Millennium Business

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