Purpose is more than living your values

Purpose Is More Than Living Your Values

September 17, 2020

The pandemic has upended so many aspects of life and commerce. Prior to this upheaval, conversations about corporate purpose were well underway. Consumers and business leaders alike were looking at where they want to fit within societal expectations. COVID-19 has brought these discussions to a crystal clear point.

The pandemic has brought “into stark relief the differences between companies that have evolved their purpose from an outdated definition of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy to a broader point of view encompassing all stakeholders and grounded in the reason why a business exists,” wrote David Armano, global strategy director for Edelman.

I believe it’s critically important for businesses and organizations to have a clear purpose. 

Purpose is more than living your values. Your organization’s core values are what you aspire to be as an organization and what you stand for. They should be your moral compass during a crisis, and they should be reflected in strategic decision-making. Purpose is what role your organization plays in the greater society.

If core values are what you stand for, then purpose is what you stand up for. It’s your reason for being. 

Thinking About Purpose

There are three really important things that organizations need to think about in the near term when it comes to purpose.

First, your CEO needs to have a voice. COVID reinforced how critically important it is for the CEO’s voice to explain the unexplainable to audiences who matter most. Your CEO should not be the sole messenger – scaling your CEO is key – just the highest-value messenger. As we settle into a rhythm of the realities of COVID, your CEO needs to stay visible. Your CEO is best positioned to cast a greater vision of the organization’s purpose.

The second lesson of COVID is that we have all become internal communications experts. In a typical crisis, strategic communicators tend to focus externally and manage the public-facing message. During COVID, much more focus has been placed on communicating with our employees. That’s created a lot of extra work for us. We’ve had to say hard things and own our employee’s and customers’ disappointment. Numerous policy changes have been announced, including some, like mask policies, that we’ve had to defend.

We’ve gotten into a regular rhythm of communicating big messages to our employees. They’re eager to hear about what comes next. Your CEO casting a vision of the organization’s purpose coming out of COVID delivers just that. Your employees are ultimately the ones who deliver on the purpose. Bring them along on the journey from the beginning.

Finally, once you’ve engaged, be consistent in communicating messages about your organization’s purpose – internally and externally. Many corporations manage the basic blocking and tackling of crisis communications well. They’re not as good when it comes to purpose. That’s where we as strategic communicators can really create value.

Pivoting to Purpose

So as we figure out corporate purpose, we also need to figure out how CEOs are going to communicate it. We need to focus first on internal stakeholders and those that matter most. And we need a plan for how to do it consistently over the long term. 

Everyone is tired of talking about and hearing about COVID. Purpose is a great message to pivot to as we near the end of a difficult year for us all. 

“Purpose will still have its place once we move into the post-pandemic world, but it’s likely to require more ‘proof of purpose’ (the action a brand takes) both today and tomorrow if a brand truly wants to build lasting trust,” Armano said.

So purpose is not just a bold statement and a mic drop. Actions must follow, and businesses will be judged on those actions, not their statements. Purpose must be lived consistently and, for lack of a better word, purposefully.


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.