COMMUNICATION DIRECTORS’ FORUM *LIVE*
Join us for regular updates of the day’s proceeding from the Communications Directors’ Forum, live from the English Channel. Communicate magazine’s Amy Sandys and Hassan Butt are on board the cruise ship Arcadia for this annual comms conference.
The second and final day of this year’s Communication Directors Forum (CDF) focused very much on the power of people and, given the right motivations, the pinnacle of what humans can achieve.
Apt for the final sessions of a conference with a 28-year history, the ocean-based edition of the CDF concluded with a plethora of conference sessions, speakers and delegates articulating passionately the power of social life – even in an increasingly digital-led world.
For Alastair Dewar, senior manager of group public affairs at Lloyds, leading a session entitled ‘Reputation and communications strategy in an uncertain world’ required acknowledgement by the audience that, increasingly, levels of social consciousness are contributing vastly to the challenges facing corporate reputation. A digital world means customers and audiences are reacting differently; therefore, communicators must think differently. And corporate reputations so often occur as a result of this simple advice not being followed. Businesses such as RyanAir and Uber have both fallen victim to a sense by consumers that commercial gain is prioritised over stakeholder need; both businesses have seen the past few weeks wreak potentially irreversible damage on their corporate reputation. And, says Dewar, internal planning is needed for both the known and unknown corporate reputation risks. Risking a focus only on one means risking a catastrophic loss in stakeholder trust. In the current turbulent business and political climate, the potential of people to recognise and take advantage of points of disruption is vast.
Similarly, Professor Paul Willis, professor of corporate communication at Huddersfield Business School, University of Huddersfield, described how the advent of ‘wicked problems’ had awakened the need for corporate communicators to change the way strategic challenges are considered. The notion that ‘everyone is human,’ something which can feel forgotten in a fast-paced business environment, has been an ongoing theme of this year’s CDF conference – sometimes, says Willis, communicators can miss the mark, strategically speaking. Taking time to define your problem is the first step in tackling it. Too often can the desire to analyse and solve overtake any compulsion to understand; but to take time to understand is to acknowledge that, being human, complex problems require complex thought. Encourage a genuine spirit of enquiry among yourself and others, says Willis, and surround yourself with variety.
One thing is for sure – the latter part has been achieved by all who have had the pleasure of attending Richmond Events’ last voyage on the good ship Arcadia.
The second day of the Communication Directors’ Forum began with a morning of talks covering a wide range of business agendas, from insurance to digital communications. Representatives from companies such as Aviva plc, Lloyds Banking Group and the University of Huddersfield spoke confidently not only about the communications challenges that face their respective teams, but on the importance of a communications outlook that puts people first.
Yet steering the communications vessel takes a high degree of experience, professionalism and patience, and today’s speakers, delegates and suppliers engaged in positive, collaborative discussion about how to achieve desired business goals through comms.
Kicking things off, Aviva’s former global internal communication director, Christine Crofts, geared the morning talk towards ‘The power of purpose: How Internal Communications can ignite the power of purpose to drive business performance.’ “Your CEO is probably thinking about it, and maybe even doing something about it,” Crofts says. Yet addressing business challenges and using purpose-driven strategy must consider purpose as a ‘North Star,’ according to Crofts.
Discussing the importance of purpose statements that cover multiple stakeholder interests, Crofts used the example of Whole Foods Market as a key indicator – with a strong purpose strategy that contributed to incremental profit and an eventual Amazon buyout. Yet Crofts stressed that leadership-led, dialogue-focused purpose drives employee satisfaction.
Yet from purpose to adventure, the importance of communication in today’s keynote discussion remains important, perhaps even for the future of the planet. Bas Lansdorp, CEO and Founder of the MarsOne project, spoke to a capacity crowd of business professionals in the Arcadia’s Palladium. His idea, to send a team on a one-way trip from Earth to Mars, with the aim of building and developing a human colony that would manifest “this century’s breakthrough moment.”
Lansdorp stressed the importance of following an idea through to its conclusion, and although the project requires a strong individual resilience, Lansdorp stressed the need for communication and teamwork as a foundation to the project’s success. Battling against an atmosphere level of 1% and a gravity level of only 37%, Lansdorp and the MarsOne team are committed to a seemingly unthinkable task, and yet, through the power of science, technology, innovation and teamwork – all components that are accessible within the professional space – it is fast becoming a reality.
Equally important then, the need for creating engagement was a key theme across the afternoon talks. Louise Breed, head of engagement and internal communications at Swinton Insurance, discussed the need for a people-centric comms outlook in her talk ‘Creating engagement in an uncertain world.’ Through the example of Swinton Insurance’s communication redevelopment, Breed took delegates through an entire revamp of the way engagement is achieved within the business.
From fixing the basics, such as creating new IT systems and call centres, to supporting an open culture at Swinton, Breed spoke on the importance of building trust and visibility in leaders. With research and statistical support from fellow conference speakers, Karian and Box, Swinton was able to take a closer look at the people within the organisation, understand what motivates them, and create a successful project that lead to a betterment of the company’s communications outlook.
The first day of the last Communications Directors Forum to be held at sea was nostalgic not just in its sadness to see the forum transferred to land in 2018 – but also in its approach to the problems communicators face. Centred on need for everyone across the industry, from directors to delegates, to recognise the human nuances which lead to successful communications strategies, the theme of human behaviour and adapting to change were clear for all to see.
After boarding in Southampton for the last time on a Wednesday evening, the conference began with an excellent keynote speech from the most decorated female Olympian in the UK, Katherine Grainger. Marrying humour with emotion, intelligence with wit, passion with levelheadedness, Grainger spoke of her Olympic journey and time on the Team GB women’s rowing teams. From Sydney in 2000, to Barcelona in 2004, to Beijing in 2008 and Rio in 2016 – pausing, of course, to acknowledge the iconic gold medal won in London’s 2012 Olympics which even the least sporting among us still have seared into our memories – Grainger’s battle with constantly striving to be the best resonated among her captive audience. At first glance, Olympic rowing and communications are not perhaps typical bedfellows. Yet Grainger’s insistence that identifying regular, achievable goals, using input from a varied team of people with skills and abilities to complement or contrast your own, is a huge part of becoming the best you can be no doubt resonated. For communicators, it can often feel as though the industry is an echo chamber in which innovation stifled. But surround yourself with the bare minimum of the things you need to complete the job, says Grainger, and all that’s left is for you to focus on the end goal.
A similar vein was taken by Thursday’s keynote speaker, behavioural psychologist Dr Tim O’Brien, who like Katherine Grainger advocated a communications approach seeped in self-awareness. Describing the complex interrelationship between ‘thinking, feeling and behaviour,’ O’Brien says the three don’t work in isolation – but don’t necessarily work in tandem, either. By tapping into the unconscious part of our mind, the bit which provides the narrative for our ‘inner story,’ the essence of ourselves, and what it means to be us, can be found. In communications, this is key. Forging trusting, lasting relationships is tantamount to establishing business connections, building trust and establishing a strong reputation. With evermore challenges presenting to the industry, taking control – or even beginning to understand – our innermost thoughts and feelings could be the difference between success and failure.
Change is not limited only to our minds, however. Externally, client expectations are changing – and with this how brands, companies and even B2B organisations interact with their audience. While social media has grown in importance in particularly the past ten years, influencer marketing is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, says social media consultant Zoe Cairns, this doesn’t make it any less worthy. In fact, the increasing need to measure audience behaviour through engagement indicates the changes people expect from communicators – and how we go about researching, implementing and measuring these requires careful, strategic thought. Similarly, a talk the economic and political changes which could impact business, led by Dr Jamie White of the pro-free market thinktank Institute of Economic Affairs, explored the history and development of a capitalist society, and how its increasingly negative perception could see a change in government. While aimed at business owners in general, its relevance for communicators was striking – listen to voters, and adjust accordingly. Reassuring stakeholders in times of neoliberal uncertainty might mean the difference between engaging with and maintaining corporate reputation.
Setting sail for its final voyage, the Arcadia once again welcomed communications professionals from across the country to join the last seaborne Communication Directors’ Forum before the conference takes to land. Brimming with over 100 delegates and a collection of esteemed speakers, proceedings got underway today, with a host of talks and keynotes geared towards the gamut of professional communications.
Kicking off the morning talks, Coca-Cola Services’ innovation connector, EMEA, Sanjay Patel, began with his discussion on ‘Making a communications vehicle that works,’ in which, through the story of Coca-Cola’s packaging process, delegates were taken through the various methods in creating momentum and impact across a communications project. Patel’s career spans two decades of creative leadership works across companies such as Astra Zeneca and PZ Cussons.
Through various personal anecdotes at Coca-Cola, Patel’s drive to find what he likened to a ‘plug’ within a communications outlook, aided in the establishment of valuable and perceptive action. Yet from insight-driven agility, Patel’s understanding of the need to not only build a story, but implement the relevant behaviours necessary to execute it prevailed as the key takeaway from the morning discussion.
Similarly, Alison Esse, co-founder and director of the Storytellers, spoke on the materialisation of purpose, vision and values. Through the Storytellers’ work with one of the UK’s most famous food brands, Kerry Foods, Esse discussed the difficulties in engaging a diverse workforce of more than 6,000 employees. Creating exciting visual components, Esse explained the importance of connecting purpose, strategy and vision – three things she describes as already existing at Kerry Foods’ – through “a narrative glue that binds them all together.”
The results lead to a 2.1% volume growth for the business, as well as the cultivation of a ‘Trailblazers’ opportunity within the internal model of the business, whereby employees could pitch alternative ways in which the story could be further enhanced. The project also delivered considerable results for Kerry Foods’ employer brand reputation, with the brand moving from 42nd place to 14th place in Britain’s Most Admired Companies to Work For.