TODAY’S COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: THE BUSINESS PLAYMAKER?
Giles Fraser — 13th June 2014
Brands2Life and PRWeek have been running the Communications Directors Survey together for the past nine years. During that time we’ve seen the strategic nature and the depth and breadth of responsibilities involved in the Communications Director’s role expand consistently. Tellingly, according to this year’s survey data the top two communications challenges remain“Communicating effectively with ever diverse and fragmented stakeholders” (63%) and “Integrating communications activities across the business” (55%).
In the past five years we’ve seen far greater levels of transparency demanded of corporations. And digital and social has charged in like a whirlwind, creating opportunities and challenges in equal measure. Businesses are acting more globally and divisions are co-operating much more actively than ever before. The role is better respected - and better paid - than ever before.
“The communications function is at the very centre of marketing, perhaps for the first time. We are the gatekeepers of how to do business effectively in the digital age, and, as such, are incredibly well positioned.”
The ubiquity of digital has further increased the number of situations where communications is taking the lead in the organisation. It continues to be a very complex and challenging role but one with far more strategic involvement and scope than ever before.
As Peter Cross, Communications Director at John Lewis observes, “The recent experience of a communications professional in terms of crafting and landing messages in a volatile media landscape means we are well placed to play a more influential role in driving the broader business strategy.”
With the World Cup about to start maybe a football analogy can be excused? Twenty years ago the Comms Director was like a winger, relatively peripheral to the action, called in occasionally to make crosses and score the odd goal. But, today, the comms director is more like the playmaker, ‘the engine room’, at the centre of many business initiatives, acting as ‘the glue’, providing direction and support to his or her colleagues all over the pitch.
This paper picks up on a number of the themes raised in the survey and explores them with the help of some of Europe’s top communicators.
We will cover:
1. Life at the Top — The role of business leadership and its relationship with communications
2. Living the brand — How is management faring?
3. Accountable at Every Step — The impact of transparency
4. Adding a Little Edge — How digital has affected attitudes to risk
5. Internal Comms Changes Gear — How internal comms is changing
6. Joining it All Together — How comms is taking the lead on integrated campaigns
7. Digital Front and Centre — How comms is using digital and social today
8. Business Impact — The increasing importance of tangible return-on-investment
1. LIFE AT THE TOP
A business leader today is under almost constant observation during his or her business day. Their speeches, talks and presentations are all captured online and made available to all stakeholders to consume as soon as they wish. People form a judgement on what the leader is like and part of how they feel about that brand is shaped by that judgement.
So today’s business leader is much more attuned to the importance of communication than their predecessors, recognising that the softer skills — empathy, listening, communications — are as important as more traditional leadership skills. They also recognise that they need a little of their personality to shine through, especially when communicating internally, if they are to make and sustain a connection with their stakeholders. The data from the survey backs this assertion up — only 29% listed “Managing the Profile of the CEO and the board” as being a major challenge. It would seem that leadership generally ‘gets’ comms and is working well with the comms function leadership.
Nick Hindle, Senior Vice President Corporate Affairs at McDonald’s Northern Europe, puts it like this, “Business leaders are much more literate today with regard to reputation management. They need a good partnership with their comms head.”
During the last twenty years we’ve seen the cult of the leader grow and grow. In some cases, the world has attributed an almost Midas Touch to them although, arguably, these have grown fewer in number following the 2008 downturn. And, increasingly, corporations are trying to communicate a broader bench to the outside world to relieve the pressure on the leader and show the potential for strong succession planning.
Today many leaders, understandably, are resistant to the ‘cult of the personality’. They don’t enjoy the heightened profile, especially if things go wrong. Tony Hayward’s experiences after taking over from Lord Browne are a case in point. Nor do they want to be seen to be taking credit they don’t deserve for their business’ achievements.
However it is pretty clear that a leader who has something different about him or her can use that to his advantage as part of the corporate brand. Mark Price, the ‘Jolly Grocer’ of Waitrose is a case in point. His personality reinforces Waitrose’s message concerning their commitment to traditional, quality food. Some might say Michael O’Leary’s acerbic wit differentiates his organisation. Carolyn McCall, CEO of easyJet has used her very different personality to help differentiate her airline’s offer to that of Ryanair.
A good leader appreciates that they can’t simply leave communications to PR and HR. They have to be actively involved in the message creation and delivery, no matter how time-consuming it might be. If they are involved with — and champion — the creation of the corporation’s brand narrative, its story, then it is more likely to be truly engaging and authentic and that will improve its credibility when spokespeople and communicators deliver it into the market.
Nick Jones, Head of Digital Communications and Corporate Responsibility, Visa Europe says of his new CEO, “He’s keen to challenge afresh how we communicate and make us more forthcoming, communicative. I once read that a good CEO spends about 30% of his time communicating and I think that’s about right.”
A willingness to experience greater exposure externally also extends to taking a more active interest in customer and stakeholder feedback. Many management teams now relish the opportunity to gain access to customer sentiment in real-time and make sure its status is always on the agenda.
“Trust in our brand has been eroded over the past few years so our new CEO, Ross McEwan, has put building public, customer and stakeholder trust as the key organising thought of our business. Today what is right for the customer is right for the business.”
2. LIVING THE BRAND
The appreciation of the importance of the brand and brand values has never been greater. Employees want to understand properly what the organisation stands for and what that means to them. As Jason Knauf, Director of Corporate Affairs at RBS puts it, “we have a consistent organising thought that unites the whole bank”.
Interestingly the 2014 PRWeek/Brands2Life Comms Directors Survey reveals that only 60% of respondents thought that corporate decision-making reflected the brand values of the organisation extremely or very well.
Experience shows it is easy to live the brand values when things are going well but it is when the organisation is experiencing tougher times that the cost of living those values can seem prohibitive. For example, many businesses say they put customers first but do they always manage to live this mantra in their day-to-day actions?
The UK corporate tax debate in 2012 threw this challenge into sharp focus. Most business people could see that, for those under the microscope, there was a clear contrast between how consumers and shareholders respectively expected the brand to react. The wide variety of responses from those corporations drawn into the debate served to illustrate the complexity of the topic.
Nicola Green, Director of Communications and Reputation at O2 (Telefonica UK), comments, “Our CEO really appreciates the importance of the brand values. They help shape discussions and create the right culture.”
But Sandrine Leroux-Graves, Senior Director, Communications and Events, EMEA of VMware, adds, “For the communications lead it makes a big difference when the management really get the importance of living the brand values. Leaders’ behaviour can be so infectious that they are a incredible communications tool for a company brand.”
3. ACCOUNTABLE AT EVERY STEP
Increased transparency has been one of the most significant developments in the past couple of years for most communications leaders. Undoubtedly, Sarbanes-Oxley has played its part as corporations have cleaned up the presentation of their financial data but the rise of social media has played an even greater part.
Nick Bell, Head of External Communications, EMEA and Asia Pacific at DLA Piper comments, “Coverage of the financial crisis has made people much more aware of the behaviour of corporates and institutions. There’s a real appetite for business news, whether good or bad, and that focusses the mind. Therefore we are much more alive to reputational issues — both our own and those of our clients.”
“Companies have to live with openness, so trust is critical and you have to earn that.”
A small issue in one part of the world can be a global problem within minutes, whether it be a disgruntled employee, a protesting consumer or a faulty product. Often corporations are put under huge pressure to make a comment when the facts are incomplete and/or there are conflicting shareholder agendas. In these situations the right choice of channel, language and tone can be highly influential on how the outside world views the brand’s reaction.
The approaches brands have taken to handle such developments vary greatly. Some have put in place extensive crisis scenario planning procedures in readiness for any eventuality. Others believe that there are so many possible issues that it makes more sense to work out how to handle them as they crop up.
Ngaire Moyes, Director, Corporate Communications, EMEA, LinkedIn comments, “We’ve prepared a crisis process with the right infrastructure and scenario-planning in place so that we can respond more quickly whatever happens.”
Susannah Clark, Senior Communications Director, Global, at King (producers of Candy Crush) adds, “While it’s helpful to have crisis scenario planning in place, flexibility is important. Not every situation that comes up will affect each of your audiences in the same way. It’s important to consider which of your audiences will be affected, and also how they might view the situation and then act accordingly.”
4. ADDING A LITTLE EDGE
It is our view that the increased transparency brands experience has also caused them to be more ambitious and, in some cases, braver in their communications. The thinking goes — “We’re going to have the bad aspects of our business exposed warts and all by others at some point, no matter what, so why shouldn’t we expose all the good things in an impactful way as well?”
“ You can’t de-risk everything or you will lose an edge.”
The willingness of brands to be more transparent has translated into many larger brands taking a more risky approach to communications. A case in point is Brands2Life client Rentokil that is enjoying great success with its Pestaurant events around the world this year. Rentokil, that control pests for a living, is inviting customers to eat them at a free pop-up restaurant? A surprising move for the brand, but one which has delivered considerable brand awareness and sales benefits to the business in the past year.
Brands2Life client John Lewis is another traditional brand that has taken the opportunity to break the mould of its communications. In 2013, for the first time ever, it used its own sales data to create Shop, Live and Look, a comprehensive snapshot of the nation’s shopping habits. The launch of the report was one of the brand’s biggest PR successes for the year and helped drive considerable footfall into the stores.
In a world where any brand can make a massive noise quickly and cheaply, the role of the ‘big idea’ has become ever more crucial because, firstly, it has to compete with thousands of other ideas every day and, secondly, it will be seen and used across every communications channel with every audience. Today’s best ideas tend to be extremely simple and are more tightly aligned to the brand proposition that ever before.
The success of campaigns, such as ComparetheMarket’s Meerkat, are testament to this. Likewise online takeaway leader, JUST EAT, has run many campaigns around its ‘food rebels’ brand idea — “Don’t Cook, Just Eat”. It’s a simple mantra designed to challenge people’s assumptions in a light-hearted way whenever they are wondering what they should cook that evening.
Moreover the changes in Google’s algorithms for page ranking have made the requirement for content that is both trustworthy and has a high level of engagement even greater. If brands can’t generate buzz online then they won’t be considered by consumers when they are choosing their product or service.
5. INTERNAL COMMS CHANGES GEAR
Some of the biggest changes have been in the internal comms arena. More and more organisations are recognising the importance of employees as external brand ambassadors and spending more time making sure that internal brand communications work really well.
“I spend more time on internal comms than external. You need to have internal comms experience to become a comms director these days.”
Claire Divver, newly-arrived as Group Communications Director at BAE Systems, remarks on this topic, “I’ve found a huge appetite for internal communications within the business: the old-fashioned view that internal comms is purely a function of comms and HR doesn’t apply here. It’s understood that a key tenet of leadership is a responsibility to communicate with your people.”
It is a tough challenge for communicators to get the balance right. Only 44% of those polled agreed that they were doing a good job making sure staff know and communicate the corporate message.
Employees expect more information about the business in order to do their jobs but, if you give out more information, then there is a greater chance of confidential information leaking outside. Internal audiences need to be treated with the same care and attention external audiences receive, indeed they expect more information than them but, in return, they have to be trusted to keep sensitive information confidential. As Nick Hindle of McDonalds says, “Internal and external communications are the same.”
Forward-thinking brands are making as much information as available to all employees so that they can do their jobs better and be better ambassadors for their businesses. These communications need to be interesting and engaging as they are competing with masses of other information for the employee’s attention. Peter Cross of John Lewis says, “As the lines between work and play increasingly blur, especially for a younger generation, the challenges of employee communications and which media to use becomes ever more complex.”
LinkedIn run all-staff meetings on a quarterly basis and share all kinds of sensitive information (apart from market-sensitive financials) and, apparently, there has never been a leak as a result of this.
“If you treat staff like adults they will behave like them.”
Today corporations can use their internal channels to deliver marketing content through the organisation and out into the market. Externally-facing employees can use their own social media channels as sales and marketing tools both for themselves and their organisation. Many businesses are investing time and money to make their staff better ambassadors. We, at Brands2Life, call this ‘Inside-Out Marketing’ and we have been involved extensively in this process for some of our clients. We’ve helped them pick the right social media channels for their staff to use and taught key people around the world to use them. To help facililate this we have helped tighten the engagement between the sales, marketing and communications teams so that messages and content are aligned.
Business social tools are also revolutionising the way communications teams talk to each other and share content and ideas across different markets. Malcolm Padley, Corporate Communications Director at Rentokil Initial plc, explains “Google+ helps us enormously. We operate in 70 countries so we have integrated our intranet, email and our internal social media into Google apps. This means we can be very creative in how we bring the company story to life.”
6. JOINING IT ALL TOGETHER
If there is a consistent theme from the Comms Directors Survey it is that communications is increasingly taking a leadership role across the business and is taking responsibility for the integration role. The top two communications challenges are “Communicating effectively with ever diverse and fragmented stakeholders” (63%) and “Integrating communications activities across the business” (55%). And 72% said they were integrating their communications across PR/marketing/ comms more than they were a year ago.
As Nicola Green of O2 says, “The biggest challenge for comms is to work more in partnership with marketing. Comms Directors have a huge opportunity to step up and be the customer conscience for the organisation. Now is our moment.”
Sandrine Leroux-Graves of VMware, who has responsibility for over 30 countries across EMEA, says, “Integrated marketing is an absolute must to optimise business impact and deliver ROI to the business, especially as sales put more and more pressure onto marketing to demonstrate its value. I run PR/AR/customer events/social media/employee comms so integration is naturally easier and constantly in our mind. I think businesses who are set up like this have a real advantage.”
More and more, a communications campaign needs to be executed well internally and used across multiple marketing and communications channels. With digital at the centre this challenge is technically easier than it was, but it still requires a much higher level of co-operation and communication from the very start of a project.
The survey asked respondents which departments the comms heads are asking for more support and advice. The top five were Marketing (72%), Sales (50%), HR (49%), Customer Service (40%) and Distribution/ Channel/Retail (35%).
Why has the role fallen to the communications team rather than marketing? There are several answers to this. Firstly, as Nick Hindle of McDonalds asserts, “The comms function is simply better connected than other functions”. Also the communications skill-set — consultative, interactive, news-oriented — is better suited to communicating many of the initiatives of the modern corporation. And, finally, if a good idea or concept starts in the communications function — or with one of its agencies — then it makes sense for it to run with it across multiple channels. Then the challenge is, as Peter Cross of John Lewis puts it, “getting all the channels joined up while respecting the individual purpose and personality of each channel and what each one needs to deliver.”
Unsurprisingly, organisations that have been ‘born digital’ are leading the way here. Ngaire Moyes of LinkedIn adds, “Collaboration happens globally across all functions at LinkedIn. Marketing and PR work closely together, on consumer and B2B campaigns.”
7. DIGITAL FRONT AND CENTRE
In our view 2013 was the year digital became a truly integrated part of the communications armoury. As Nick Jones, who runs digital at Visa Europe, puts it, “In the past two years digital moved from being an afterthought, along the lines of ‘here’s a spare £30K, shall we use it on digital?’ to being part of the mix from the planning stage.”
Most large organisations are now well-resourced for digital infrastructure, both internally and externally, and all have their channels in place and populated. 77% said social media is integrated with other activities all or most of the time and 65% said the same of digital marketing.
The challenge now is more about the delivery — what’s being said to who, how and with what tone. Because there is so much noise organisations are starting to think harder about how they differentiate online. This means more time and money being spent on getting the strategy, focus and tone right.
“We’ve been fairly proactive in engaging with social media. Our challenge is to focus on channels and content that have the greatest impact with our key stakeholders. We need to ensure what we do delivers value and avoid chasing best practice for its own sake.”
For more consumer-facing brands this can also mean a greater element of risk — the use of humour being the obvious example. People generally go onto the web for information and then stay because they are being entertained. Corporations are learning this fast — although not all are getting it right every time.
Speed and agility needs to be matched with the recognition that your audiences will look for information about your company from multiple sources. An investor is just as likely to read a post about an amusing incident at a trade show as a consumer is. Even if social is making the corporation more accessible, it also means that consistency is key. Susannah Clark of King, comments, “The corporate audience might also look at the Candy Crush Facebook page so we have to be very consistent in messaging and tone of voice across all channels.”
The survey suggests that digital budgets aren’t increasing at the speed that they were. Why? Maybe because the platforms are in place; because digital and social are integrated into planning; and because strategies are more focussed? Nick Jones of Visa Europe puts it like this, “We’ve actually reduced our digital budget slightly and are doing more for less. We’re holding our nerve even when the whirlwind of digital is creating angst amongst many.”
2014 is going to be the year when every corporation puts in place a content strategy. It has been recognised that if you’re going to succeed digitally then you need lots of regular, quality content and you can’t make it all up on the hoof or try to customise your marketing materials at the last minute.
“I believe it is critical to build content with professionals. Put something “home-made” out there and the consumer will be quick to pick you up on it. In traditional media speak it’s like asking the Personnel Director to dress the shop windows. You wouldn’t. All the new channels are only as useful and credible as the quality of the content you find there.”
Successful content takes planning, time, resource and money. Also, invariably, it is visual in nature. Because the communications and PR teams live and breathe the news agenda they appreciate what it takes to get people engaged, so they are well-placed to drive the strategy. But communications hasn’t traditionally been as good as marketing in visual content skills, so it is playing catch-up. Nick Hindle of McDonalds comments, “I think good visual and video production skills are going to be really important in the future. It’s an area where I plan to train my teams very soon.”
Clearly social and digital are now at the heart of virtually all corporations’ communications. But the sighs of relief that came when the platforms and infrastructure were put in place have been replaced by the howls of anguish when a competitor appears to be doing a better job of using their channels. The same challenges of relevance, tone, focus and impact remain.
Overall digital and social have enormous transformational potential both inside and outside the corporation. In many cases corporations spend months debating new initiatives and then, once they are in place and working, executives invariably ask themselves why they didn’t do them much sooner.
As Nick Jones of Visa Europe wryly observes, “There’s a maxim from an MIT Harvard Professor of IT: everyone overestimates the benefits of the old one by three and underestimates the benefits of the new one by three — that’s very true of perceptions of social and digital media in many organisations.”
8. BUSINESS IMPACT
The last few years have seen much discussion in the industry about measurement and some real progress by bodies such as AMEC, the evaluation industry trade body. Are communications heads satisfied with their progress on measurement? The honest answer is that, despite a great deal of investment, not yet. Whilst progress has been made on the setting of the objectives and the tracking of outputs and outcomes, the causality between the two is still, with the exception of the campaigns of some online-only brands, not proven.
At Brands2Life we believe that the delivery of true business impact is one of the key challenges facing comms directors in the years ahead. This doesn’t mean that brand awareness and favourability are no longer important, but that our contribution to the broader metrics of the business is increasingly important. Sales leads, event sign-ups, page links, followers and likes — these are all business metrics to which a financial value can be assigned. Increasingly our campaigns can demonstrate tangible contributions towards these metrics.
The survey data demonstrates the progress that is being made here. 41% said that, for some of their work, they can show the tangible difference their work makes to the business. A further 18% said they can actually show sales and/or sales leads from their work.
“There’s so much pressure to show ROI and how we help sales. We need to show we’re helping to contribute to the pipeline.”
Nicola Green of o2 comments, “The communications discipline needs to focus on ROI even more. If we can show how we influence customer sentiment we will be able to command bigger budgets.”
The time required to set up and run measurement is an issue for all comms leaders and their functions. But it is increasingly possible to use controlled experiments to see how a PR or comms activity impacts on the social and digital metrics of a business. Observing the spikes — and assessing how those spikes could have been generated by other marketing techniques — can lead to some highly-encouraging new insights about the value of PR and comms. It can also help communicators to plan and focus their campaigns more accurately.
Ngaire Moyes of LinkedIn says, “We use BrandIndex to track our brand reputation and buzz. Increasingly we are also tracking engagement and sign-ups in addition to the brand’s performance.”
But the drive towards business impact is a double-edged sword. There can be occasions when, despite comms’ influence on the brand profile, the cost of its contribution to marketing and sales can sometimes make it seem poor value compared to online marketing techniques. Or the contribution to brand awareness and favourability can be forgotten. The challenge facing communicators is to show how their activities can drive both brand favourability and sales and marketing engagement and thus the true value of their work.
However, after years of PR struggling to demonstrate its true value to the business, we have definitely turned a corner.
Thanks for reading.
Giles Fraser, Co-Founder, Brands2Life
Giles Fraser is Co-Founder of Brands2Life, an international, digitally-led integrated communications agency with over 100 staff.
He has spent the past thirty years working in communications — in agency, management consultancy and in-house.