By Mark Hutcheon, Associate Partner at ReputationInc
The past decade has witnessed transformational change in areas ranging from geopolitics to teenage leisure pursuits. But one of the most dramatic shifts has been in communication as digital technology, social networking and 24 hour news have become dominant forces in the transfer of information from business to business, from business to consumer and from consumer to consumer. The new dynamic has forced every business function to adapt, perhaps none more so than corporate communications.
Once, corporate communications was relatively simple. Its main role was to liaise with the press: sending out releases when necessary, arranging half-yearly meetings between members of the media and the chief executive and making sure a coterie of senior journalists were on your side.
For some corporate affairs directors, the role was even more prescriptive: asked to act as guardians of information, they saw their job as ensuring the press knew as little as possible about the businesses for which they worked.
Today, such control is almost impossible. Thanks to the internet, virtually anyone can find out virtually anything about virtually everything. That alone imposes fundamental change on the corporate communications department. But the situation has been intensified by the economic downturn and its impact on the reputation not just of banks but almost every aspect of the corporate world.
Consumers are demoralised, disillusioned and disappointed by a wide variety of sectors and industries – which means companies have to work harder than ever to gain their customers’ trust. And who takes responsibility for this task? Invariably, it falls to the corporate communications team.
So the corporate communications function is broader and deeper than it has ever been. The nuts and bolts of traditional media management - writing press releases, developing relationships with key journalists and ensuring they have access to senior executives when interim and full-year figures are released – remains. But, as every corporate affairs director knows, the role has become far more sophisticated.
Today’s corporate communicators have to cope with 24 hour news flow so journalists expect to be able to talk to people in the know from morning to night, seven days a week. But news flow is not just about journalists responding to a corporate announcement. Today, news can emerge from bloggers, social network sites, activist websites and the like. As events ranging from the Arab spring to the UK August riots make clear, spreading information is breathtakingly easy these days – and corporate communications teams need to be able to monitor what the electronic world is saying about their company and – equally importantly – influence those messages.
At the same time, companies are under pressure to cut costs, so corporate affairs directors are being asked to justify their budget and do more with less. Chief executives expect their corporate communications team to bring the outside world in, explaining the way the company is perceived and shaping those perceptions. They expect the press office to deliver genuine thought leadership, offer meaningful advice about how to enhance their company’s reputation and act as an antenna to risk. These are high value functions that will test the competencies of the best communicators.
To many corporate communications directors, this plethora of demands can seem excessively challenging. But what if they view the ‘new normal’ as an opportunity to take the corporate communications function to the next level?
Smart operators are already changing their teams to reflect the new reality – ensuring staff have the requisite skills to cope with the demands being placed upon them. Sometimes, this involves recruiting new talent. But existing team members can become superb advocates for their organisation, if they receive appropriate training and gain an understanding of what they need to do and how best to do it.
Despite the recession, raising the skills and competency bar through capability building is vital. Shrunken, newly assembled or over-worked teams will enjoy both a performance and morale boost from an investment in their in the competencies.
As we see it, the classic development approach is still relevant. Discover the competencies (and therefore gaps) most needed to advance the business and reputation goals; design a learning methodology and deliver it across multiple points and channels. It should reflect the learning philosophy of the company, mix foundational level training with master-classes customised to different levels and exploit the latest experiential learning tools.
Wherever your function is on its journey , competencies in reputation management, corporate campaigning, reputation foresight and reputation content are becoming indispensible.
There is no going back to the old ways. Corporate affairs directors have to adapt. Those who face up to the challenge, relish it and ensure their staff are equipped with the requisite skills can prove their own worth and elevate the status of their entire team.
The alternative is a slow erosion of the corporate affairs function. And, for savvy, sophisticated communicators, that is simply unacceptable.