Over the past several weeks, I’ve written about the importance of putting the public at the heart of everything from public relations to public affairs, from defining the public interest to developing public policy.  Many of you have agreed with this in principle, but have asked how to make it work in practice.

For years, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has purposely left one chair empty at key meetings with his senior leadership team.  The chair is empty so that Amazon customers have both a literal and figurative seat at the table.  It’s a constant reminder to all that Amazon’s success is due to putting the customer first.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies Global Chairman Jack Martin has long advocated a variation and innovation on this theme – not only giving the public a chair, but ensuring it is filled. H+K’s ‘Fifth Seat’ model guarantees the public has an active and actual voice when companies are making strategic decisions.

As Jack explains, around any given boardroom table a CEO will have lawyers, bankers, accountants, and management consultants.  The people in those four seats offer valuable experience in their areas expertise, yet none can advise on issues related to public trust.  You need someone who can in a fifth seat.

Unless or until organizations have someone specifically tasked with harnessing the power of the public – either in the form of an internal employee or external advisor – it will never be on the list of foundational considerations which contribute to the development of truly successful corporate strategies.

Understanding and interacting with the public on their terms, in ways which garner and foster public trust, should be given the same priority as ensuring compliance with laws or honouring financial obligations.  It is a critical area which now demands a detailed grasp of data-driven insights and analytics.

The ideal fifth seat advisor is someone who has the capacity to turn statistics into stories and numbers into narratives.  That means having someone with the ability to consult as well as create – a rare and unique combination of skills.  Yet, they are skills which can be cultivated in the right corporate culture.

Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and serves as general manager of their Ottawa offices.

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