CHANGE AND COMMUNICATIONS IN THE MODERN PLC
Faced with ever more discerning and demanding stakeholders, there is an opportunity for corporate communicators to nudge their CEOs towards a more human response – especially when today’s leaders appear willing to take the challenge of authenticity more seriously. How can practitioners become communications superheroes? Jon Barker investigates
Since its inception in 2008, Communicate magazine has witnessed plenty of trends and changes in the corporate comms space. Practitioners have increasingly needed to grapple with the growth and influence of social media, the questions that multiple channels ask of their teams and the varying levels of support given to them by company leaders.
Indeed, these were just some of the challenges tackled at a recent roundtable discussion with senior comms practitioners. The session was attended by delegates from Britvic, Avon, British Horseracing Authority (BHA), Dorchester Collection, Dropbox, Fairtrade Foundation, Deloitte, Takeda, Royal London, GSM London, House of Fraser, ZPG (Zoopla) and HS2. It explored how the role of the corporate communicator in a public company has changed and it identified the key pressure points for today’s comms professionals.
Most attendees struggled with a single major challenge – how to communicate corporate stories in a credible, authentic, yet differentiated way. In approaching this, practitioners turn to an arsenal of tools including social media, storytelling, internal communications and some good, old-fashioned media relations.
Hot on everyone’s lips was the ongoing challenge posed by social media. Ingrid Brown, brand engagement director at comms agency Luminous, says, “There is now a dialogue that can no longer be controlled by the comms team. We are in an age where customers become the voice piece for a brand, and there is a need to communicate to a mistrusting generation demanding more and more transparency and authenticity.”
Multiple communications channels and brand touchpoints certainly make it difficult to maintain a consistent corporate narrative. As one delegate put it, “How do we keep the same messages on all these different channels and keep true to the brand that we’re trying to get out there?”
All stakeholders will need to be considered. As another delegate warned, “You cannot have a situation where you are saying one thing to customers and something else to new recruits.”
Turf war 2.0
One issue which has been amplified by the growth of digital is the sheer confusion it creates within a business around ownership, allocation, budgets and control. Age-old battles are reimagined through a social lens, with everyone from sales, marketing, PR, HR and internal comms fighting over who owns which channel and who’s treading on whose toes.
The group disagreed over whether too much is made of this turf war, but the idea of purpose was identified as something to help integrate thinking and focus everyone’s attention in the right direction. “Essentially, you are engaging with stakeholders in one way or another for one reason or another, so it makes perfect sense for that engagement to be allied,” said up one delegate.
Another suggested looking to employees for the answers, “Brands are now much more about what people say they are to each other…so if you ever get the chance, try and do an employer brand project because it’s very interesting to see where people’s heads are at in terms of integration.”
Clearly, corporate communicators should be working closely with leadership teams to define the brand purpose, flesh out the corporate narrative and join the dots for different departments. More can always be done to bring comms front and centre, but as one delegate said, at least progress is being made, “Some organisations are really taking reputation as a strategic issue. It’s got a seat at the table on the exco and it’s considered by the board on a regular basis.”
Brown points out that she works closely with leaderships teams in large, complex plc environments, and that she often finds herself in the boardroom working closely with the comms and leadership teams to uncover a corporate narrative that truly expresses why their businesses exist and why it actually matters in their world. When this narrative is brought to life it often becomes the ‘aha’ moment for the leadership team to remember why they come to work each day beyond just making money and it definitely helps the corporate communications team govern consistency and manage brand reputation they are responsible for.
The human touch
Authenticity and trust were undeniably the watchwords of the day. The group felt that while politicians, financial services firms and energy companies were frequently identified as being poster boys for general skulduggeries, communicators must work harder to win over an ever more sceptical public.
As one delegate pointed out, “It’s less that the value of expertise is no longer valued, it’s more the legitimacy and authenticity of that expertise is no longer to be taken for granted. For corporate communicators, this means working harder to establish validity and value…as much as putting forward the expertise itself.”
Corporate speak continues to rear its ugly head all too frequently. One delegate said, “I think we are all guilty of conforming to a unified way of communicating.” Words like ‘authentic’ and ‘human’ are easy to drop in to a well-meaning statement, but quickly become jargon once everyone else gets in on the act.
Leaders themselves can be the worst culprits, often seeking refuge in corporate banalities because they figure this language is safe. While they might hear ‘be more human’ in their heads when speaking to employees or the media, they end up being the opposite – essentially repeating the same stock phrases, over and over again.
A quick browse of the language used by different brands also shows uncanny similarities in terms of values and statements of purpose – no matter the industry. “Everybody’s saying the same thing,” said one delegate, “and, in attempting to be authentic and different, everybody arrives at the same place.”
That contributes to the difficulties expressed in differentiating companies – particularly in the B2B space or among startups.
It might be that authenticity can only truly be achieved by listening to employees. As one delegate put it, “Employees are the only real element of humanity that your company has and that people engage with…either on social or face to face.”
Another even went as far to say that the future role of the corporate communicator will be as the ‘chief humanity officer’ – the one that “represents the human voice of the organisation.”
For business expanding rapidly and those with operations around the world, putting a human face back on the business may be crucial in addressing the challenge of differentiation.
Whatever the future holds for the corporate communicator, it was generally agreed that leaders increasingly want, and need, some form of coaching at the strategic level.
One delegate said, “Your business leaders and middle managers are the people who really impact how the rest of your employees feel about the product, they are your brand ambassadors. And I think there is still a massive job to do to coach those people and to up-skill those in the organisation who are delivering frontline communication.”
It goes to the heart of any argument about trust, transparency and authenticity. As Brown says, “When a CEO trusts the advice and guidance from their comms team they are more likely to come across credible and authentic leaders and not communicators of corporate strategy presentations.”
No one wants to see companies communicate in a tone of voice that’s corporate, bland or meaningless. And, in the end, every stakeholder needs a good story to rally around.
Brown adds, “There’s a need for a narrative that works across all stakeholders and aligns everyone in the organisation responsible for communication. Perhaps by having a clear corporate narrative, everyone in the business has something to follow and believe in.
“It would also avoid the inconsistency that happens when marketing and corporate communications work in a siloed way, even though they are both equally responsible in driving a consistent brand reputation externally.”
Delegates agree, if a unified corporate communications strategy is in place, a focused understanding of the tools at communicators’ disposal and a strong narrative is deployed, the corporate story will be authentic, transparent and effective.