More or Less
Julia Meighan, Executive Chairman of VMA Group says austere times are no excuse for delivering less.
Our recent Business Leaders in Communications Survey 2012 (BLCS) highlighted the ‘more for less’ culture pervading through communications departments. With 67% of Corporate Communications Directors expecting budgets to decrease or remain the same and almost 8 in 10 expecting demand to increase for communications expertise in the next two years.
Being a Communications Director has always been a challenging role but it is fast turning into a job unlike any other, especially given the 24/7 demands of social media and the ‘make or break’ role this has on a company’s reputation. So does it automatically follow that less means less?
“More for less is driving the agenda at the moment but less financial resource does not necessarily mean less impact – you just have to find different ways of doing things,” says James Evans, Group Communications Director at Shop Direct. “This is where social media has really come into its own. As long as it is done well and for the right reasons, it enables you to achieve more for less.”
Having worked in this industry for over thirty years, two things are certain: communicators are a positive bunch and know how to adapt. However, in times of restraint a Board still needs to make a profit and if they can’t do that through business growth they will do it by cost control, so the only way for Communications Directors to get a bigger slice of the pie, or at least keep their current slice, is to demonstrate their worth.
I agree with Dominic Cheetham, Director of Corporate Communications at Serco, when he says that the current climate has actually created an opportunity for communicators: “It’s not just communications departments that are feeling the pinch, everyone is under pressure but communicators should look at these challenges as opportunities.
“The increasingly complex world in which we live means it is harder to manage reputation. This has resulted in senior management becoming more aware of the value reputation has on opening up new markets, creating sales and attracting capital,” he says.
However, it’s not an automatic rite of passage for communicators. If senior management is to invest in communications, they need to fully understand its impact on the bottom line. This involves communicators taking the initiative and sitting at the Board table with evidence that underpins the Board’s investment in communications and strong business cases for new initiatives, all presented in commercial language they understand.
The BLCS demonstrated that the discipline does enjoy some influence at Board level but that the relationship between the Corporate Communications Director and the CEO is a complex and challenging one with over a third of respondents saying advising the Board/CEO was one of their most important roles but fewer than half reporting any major influence on Board level strategic decision-making. This needs to change.
We know that reputation management consistently features highly as a top priority for CEOs, yet there is little formal schooling for CEOs in its application – evidenced by the absence of the subject on the MBA curriculum. There is a clear opportunity for senior corporate communicators to educate and increase their influence on the Board/CEO and we see our BLCS as a call to action to all Corporate Communications Directors.
I can see a place for ‘reverse mentoring’ at Board level, whereby key directors are mentored by social media savvy corporate communicators who can show them how to harness insightful stakeholder opinion and inform strategic thinking through social media.
Another increasingly important challenge facing Communications Directors is the need for greater employee engagement strategies. Boards are well-tuned into the impact of ill-informed staff and high staff turnover and want to engender greater productivity and commitment through their internal communications.
Internal communications has gone way beyond managing the intranet, as evidenced by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe’s powerful internal communication response to recent allegations of racial abuse by his officers, which led many of the day’s news bulletins. The lines are blurring and the skills needed to thrive in PR are changing.
At VMA Group we’ve experienced a shift in demand from more traditional PR generalists to specialist social media and strategic roles but where recruiting isn’t an option, savvy Communications Directors need to train up their teams and redeploy.
Dominic Cheetham is unequivocal about how to navigate a communications department in a ‘more for less culture’: “You have to identify what areas of activity deliver the most value and impact to your audiences and then redeploy your resource accordingly.”
He continues: “You need people on board who are skilled across the piece.”
Clearly a ‘make-do’ culture will not advance any business. In today’s complex and changing communications landscape, delivering what you’ve always delivered will not work. James Evans says:
“Twenty years ago one of our main forms of communication was the press release, which we faxed and then waited for some form of coverage or response a day later. Today, nothing takes that long and in most cases reaction is instant.“
This requires a whole different skill set, as communications methods rapidly evolve so to do the skills needed to deliver them. Austere times offer no excuse for delivering less and require today’s communicator to ‘roll with the punches’ and adapt, not so much demonstrating a ‘Jack of all trades’ approach but confidence and ability across many disciplines.