"We are moving from storytelling to storydoing." This is how a head of communications in a large bank, interviewed as part of the Navigating Social Acceptance research, described one of the most profound shifts affecting the communications function.
(Image: Jérémie Guillerme presenting at this year's European Communication Summit)
In times of general mistrust towards corporations and their discourse, telling a good story is no longer enough. Communications is becoming more and more about demonstrating the right behaviours, and ensuring that they are consistent with the story. However, let's not be too idealistic. Because organisations are large and complex, there is always a level of discrepancy between what organisations say, and the reality experienced by employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders.
Rather than pretending these discrepancies don't exist, communicators need to become experts at spotting and addressing them. This requires communicators to have a birds-eye view of everything that goes on inside and outside the organisation.
On the inside, communicators are becoming a lot more involved in decisions that were traditionally outside of their remit. The same head of communications later told me: "Most of my people are now involved in committees that they were not involved in a year ago. We are part of pricing discussions, product discussions, client experience discussions… We play the role of safeguarding the company’s brand promise.”
On the outside, communicators increasingly require a robust understanding of the organisation's environment. With communications being factored in important business decisions, there is no more space for assumptions or anecdotal evidence. Robust data is required to understand the perceptions and behaviours of all stakeholders who shape the company's reputation: investors, customers, business partners, NGOs and communities. Communicators therefore increasingly act as data aggregators, to turn multiple sources of information, such as stakeholder consultations, purchasing data or employee surveys, into a coherent picture of the company's reputation strengths and weaknesses.
Does this extension of communicators' role make their job easier? Certainly not.
Even those who have access to the highest levels of management say it's often hard to convince business leaders to make (or not) a decision on the grounds of reputation concerns. "Facing the CFO or legal experts, the point of view of the communicator often gets lost" said an attendee to our #ECS16 workshop. And I have heard similar struggles about getting the c-suite behind the idea of monitoring the company's reputation: "When I talk about conducting a regular exercise to gain an impression of what stakeholders think of us, (...) I have to fight for every penny and justify why it’s necessary", a head of communications at an industry association told me.
If you are facing similar issues and struggle to establish your communications function as a reputation custodian, here are three things that can help you increase your influence within your organisation.
- Define your function's purpose and mission. Being able to clearly articulate why you're here, how you benefit the business, and what you want to achieve as a communications function is already half the battle. I always recommend that communicators 'practice what they preach' - not only crafting messages about the value created by the business, but also the value created by the communications function for the business. This gives communications teams a strong sense of purpose, and allows them to tell a consistent story to the rest of the business.
- Educate leaders about the value of reputation. There is a wealth of studies and examples out there that establish a clear link between reputation and various aspects of business performance. Have those proof points at hand when pitching for an investment in a reputation programme. And look at the company's history and future prospects to make the point. Any past crisis that could have been avoided? Any emerging issues that may have a dramatic impact on future business performance?
- Show leaders data they care about. Output measures like web traffic or audience reach rarely get business leaders excited. Conversely, showing leaders communications metrics that really matter to them can make a big difference in building the influence of the communications function. There is no set formula to achieve this, but it generally pays off to provide insights on whether stakeholders understand what the company does and its strategy, how they value (or not) its socio-economic contribution, or how communications have contributed to change behaviours amongst employees and external stakeholders.