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Last week I came by chance on some startlingly sharp business writing, made even more freakish as it was in an area where communication is invariably dismal – statements of values and purpose. (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)
Last week I came by chance on some startlingly sharp business writing, made even more freakish as it was in an area where communication is invariably dismal – statements of values and purpose. (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)

LUCY KELLAWAY

Finally – some good corporate guff Add to ...

Why is it, readers often ask, that I never write about good corporate communication, but serve up an unvaried diet of bad.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that the negative is deeply rooted in my psyche. The second is because most of us like reading about guff as it’s funnier and makes us feel superior. And the third is an almost complete absence of supply of the good stuff.

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For one week only, I’m changing the pattern. Last week I came by chance on some startlingly sharp business writing, made even more freakish as it was in an area where communication is invariably dismal – statements of values and purpose. But before settling down to extol it, I can’t resist a small fix of guff, as a reminder of how bad things have become.

Last week, Barclays declared that its new purpose was: “Helping people achieve their ambitions – in the right way.” On the positive side, the words are nice and short and it’s encouraging that after 300 years, the British bank has decided that the right way is better than the wrong one.

The only snag is that it is hogwash. The purpose of a bank has nothing to do with ambition. It is, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, to keep depositors’ money safe and to lend it to people who aren’t going to run off with it.

The bank went on to state that staff will be rewarded according to “how they live our Values and bring them to life every day. And we’ll judge our ‘Go-To’ success on a balanced scorecard of impact.”

Thus Barclays establishes itself as the “Go-To” place for two things: corporate marshmallow and incorrect use of upper case.

Now compare this to Our Credo from Johnson & Johnson, four paragraphs laying out the medical group’s priorities. As I read it, I got so excited that I resolved to track down the man who wrote this exemplary piece of corporate prose. After a bit of searching, I found him.

His name is Robert Wood Johnson. There is only one thing wrong with him: He’s dead. It turns out that the statement was written in 1943, long before corporate guff was invented, but the company has sensibly hung on to it.

It begins: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients … who use our products.”

This is a strong start. There is none of the modern corporate pretence that the interests of all “stakeholders” point in the same direction. Instead, customers come first. The products, it goes on to say, should be of “high quality.” Not excellent, or world-class, or any other overinflated tosh. Just “high.”

The company’s next priority is to its employees. “We must respect their dignity and recognize their merit,” it states. “They must have a sense of security in their jobs,” feel able to make suggestions, and their pay must be “fair and adequate.” This is exceptional stuff. No dreary waffle about fun or engagement, no passion, no talent. Just the stuff that matters.

But now, for the best bit of all: “We must provide competent management, and their actions must be just and ethical.” I have never seen this in a statement before. For a company to promise to manage itself competently is, to slip into current language, a very big ask. A big hairy audacious stretch goal.

The third duty is to the community. “We must be good citizens – support good works and charities and pay our fair share of taxes.” Starbucks etc., take heed.

Shareholders take their place at the back of the queue. “When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.” On reading this credo, I find that I believe, too. I enthusiastically sign up to this sort of capitalism.

Alas, since Our Credo was written, there has been some slippage. On Johnson & Johnson’s website are examples of “Credo in Action,” with dismal, modern mentions of a “Diverse Inclusive Leadership Pipeline” and the “employee experience.”

Sadder still is that for all its credo, Johnson & Johnson doesn’t noticeably exceed the undemanding standards set by other drug companies. In recent years, jobs haven’t always been secure, and customers haven’t always been looked after. Only last week, there was a story about executives from the company being investigated for allegedly bribing doctors in Greece.

There may be a good reason companies talk flatulently about helping people meet their ambitions and “Go-To” success. Because if they don’t live up to such waffly principles, no one will ever know.

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