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Agnostic opinions in the corporate world

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

When we try to personalize corporations, we are simply wrong. Corporations, just like governmental entities at any level, are not people. Corporations and government entities are just stacks of properly filed legal documents. Indeed, people work for them, people represent them, but people they are not.

This is important to understand today, but this week I want to focus in on one particular area of behavior within corporations that is erroneously perceived as opinions promulgated by people.

This is the area of public relations, public announcements and advertising – which together come under the umbrella of “corporate communications.”

Corporations of any size pay attention to the world’s perception of them. Even my little companies. This past winter, we were preparing a poster that was to go to certain schools of higher education. We discussed having a person in a lab coat as part of the visuals in this poster. The question was asked of me, “What should this person look like?”

Without hesitation, I said, “Female person of color.” And that is what we ended up with. I know better than put a white male (that would likely look something like I do) in such a poster for such an audience. We wanted to cater to the readers, do what was expected, when we had pictures of humans in our sales pitch.

This had nothing to do with anyone’s personal feelings. The objective was to anticipate the viewers’ reaction and cater to them. I happened to personally think we were accurately displaying a person who would be representative of the kinds of people one might see in the scenario shown, one that I heartily support in the real world, but that made no difference. The perception was what was important.

Likewise, it follows then, when corporations tout “green” or any other social cause of the day, it may or may not represent the views of the people in charge of those corporations.

Big corporations hire specialized consultants and spend millions on surveys to understand the undercurrent of perception in the world. Then, they design their corporate communications to match the opinions of the general population.

They are agnostic toward their opinions, for they are clearly focused on the objectives of all corporations: (1) maximize return to shareholders and (2) mitigate risks.

There is a danger to agnostic opinions. The shallow thinking public may think corporations actually think and believe what they promulgate through their corporate communications (remember, corporations are not people) or that the people in charge at a corporation actually believe the promulgated opinions (but remember, their job is to maximize return to shareholders and mitigate risks).

Thus, you as a receiving public recipient of an agnostic opinion may decide that you should believe it, because it came from Corporation XYZ, which you admire. In reality, you don’t have any idea what the people who work for Corporation XYZ believe about any subject, nor what the corporation’s opinion is of any subject.

In today’s world, I can only think of two well-known companies that violate what I have just stated on the side of exposing their conservatism, which can be dangerous today. They both happen to be in the fast food business.

The first is Wendy’s, who vigorously promotes adoption (because their founder was adopted and had a heart for this activity and it is part of the corporate culture). The other is Chick-fil-A whose founder openly promoted Christian principles in his business.

Sadly both of these founders are no longer with us, but their vision was strong enough that it has lasted in their corporate culture until this day, no matter what the public may think – no opinion surveys or consultants required.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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