A fully-rounded communicator

The state of corporate communications as a career path, and some ideas on job development

As the first decade of this millennium draws to a close, surely now is as good time as any to survey the present state of corporate communication as a career path. Executive search firms can act as a barometer of not only the skills and qualifications required by companies on the hunt for communicators, but  also ofthe overall position of communicators within the organisational hierarchy.

According to Oskar Yasar, international managing director at executive search firm the VMA group, there has been a change in the shape and direction of corporate communications careers in recent years. “Most senior communications operators now need to have the credibility and the gravitas to deal at the top table and have significant experience of reporting to senior management and senior decision makers,” he says, and he sees this trend as having Europe-wide relevance. “The Anglo-Saxon model of communication directors reporting to CEOs is now becoming prevalent on the continent, which means the level and the experience needed has increased significantly.” He describes these qualities as “a combination of team leadership, experience at the top table, international exposure and an innate understanding of the potential of the role of communications. Added qualities are experience of the growing trend of internal communications, digital and regulatory and public affairs as well as a strong understanding of English!”

Academic background

But do Europe’s universities prepare good communicators, possessing the skills necessary to face the new challenges of the communicator’s function? Professor Tom Watson teaches corporate public relations and has a detailed knowledge of bachelor’s and master’s programmes in his native UK and several other European countries. He believes that “university education in public relations and corporate communications is running ahead of current practice.” He observes that the international academic institutions where he teaches “all have a strong emphasis on social media, ethics and ethical communication, CSR and other key topics.” As an example, he offers the long-established bachelor’s degree course in public relations at the UK’s Bournemouth University: “All these topics are taught, along with core skills like writing and visual communications for public relations, and the integration of public relations with advertising and marcoms. We also teach consumer and audience psychology, public relations strategy and tactics, reputation and issues management and a wide range of options including political communication and marketing relations. The students also learn about business and management from their first year onwards. As this course has been running for 21 years, with some changes over time, there is a large group of younger public relations practitioners and corporate communicators already prepared for these and other complex issues.”

Job vacancies

Once they’ve graduated, what opportunities exist for new communication professionals, particularly given the recent financial slowdown? Professor Watson offers a fairly positive view: based on the provision of placements for his students and their employment after graduation, he believes that there continues to be strong demand. “Employers are offering more placements (40 weeks paid work) than we can fill,” he says, “and there is a high level of employment for graduates. However, my contacts within the industry tell me that employment was flat or falling two years ago but has recovered recently.” A similar, cautiously-optimistic view is shared by Oskar Yasar. “The recent downturn has meant that the market has slowed down,” he says, “but we are expecting it to pick up significantly over the next twelve months, particularly on the back of a number of IPOs that are likely to kick in in the first quarter of next year.”

Christophe de Callatay, a director at the Association of Executive Search Consultants, is even more positive, believing that there are plenty of opportunities for communications professionals. “At top-level”, he explains, “as for virtually all positions, there is a real dearth of highly-skilled talent. The challenge is to identify and appoint the right individual for any specific assignment. Ageing demographics and globalisation are powerful driving forces that are playing in favour of the new generations and young communication graduates in particular. They shouldn’t worry too much about finding a new job: more important is to select the right employer and organisation that will enable them to learn and develop new skills, open new windows and offer career opportunities.”

Streamlined profession?

To return to the university: globally, the profession of corporate communications has become graduate entry, with increased demand for postgraduate education in communication strategy and management skills. Communication professionals with one or more communications or business degrees will become the norm, as Professor Watson describes: “I see that future senior communicators will start with a first degree in public relations and communication and, in the early to middle period of their working life, undertake a master’s or MBA or professional doctorate that moves them into a higher levels of analysis and offers them the potential to advise at board level”. Does it follow that the time when people would end up in communications after a varied career elsewhere (most notably, journalism) is effectively over – and is this a welcome development? “I think so,” says Monika Chmielewska-Żehaluk, the communication director of Sanofi-Aventis in Warsaw, who began her career working for several public relations consultancies. “Until recently, there was a general conviction that if you graduated in journalism and worked professionally, you could surely manage as a public relations specialist. I rather disagree: we should remember that a good communicator does not only write good texts but, above all, has a strategic approach in the business communication area they work in, who can plan and effectively conduct communication activities and can predict or at least prepare some plan B in case of any emergencies endlessly affecting companies worldwide nowadays.”                   

Florence Ranson, senior public relations and communications adviser for the European Banking Federation, has worked in European public affairs and communications for 20 years. She agrees that recognition of corporate communication as a career path in its own right is in everyone’s best interest. “I certainly believe that the profession is becoming a proper career and that people more and more rarely become communicators “by chance”, as was often the case for people our generation,” she says. “I think this is a positive development, for the image of our profession and for that of future communicators.” However, she does strike a note of caution. “The negative side could be that the profession becomes too formatted and that, depending on the main trends at the time of their training, new communicators fall into one category or another, follow one particular train of thoughts as to communications, rather than keeping a wide open mind, which is reflected by communicators of the current generation, where you meet engineers, lawyers, economists, journalists (yes!) and people with all sorts of backgrounds and training.” Both Christoph de Callatay and Oskar Yasar support Ranson’s equivocation. According to de Callatay, “probably the best corporate communication professionals come from very diverse professional backgrounds and have rich personalities which make them unique, highly persuasive and probably more interesting leaders to follow.” Yasar goes further, believing that “communications degrees vis à vis other degrees does not make a significant difference to the communications offering. It’s all about the experiences you can bring to the table and the credibility of your offering.”          

Raising your profile

What can professionals do to catch the eye of corporate headhunters? Oskar Yasar recommends taking care of one’s own professional image before approaching search firms: “Communications professionals need to realise they’re as important as the ‘brand’ they create for themselves. Why would a company want to hire the brand that is the candidate if the brand hasn’t been honed and refined?” A professional profile can be reinforced by attending conferences, writing articles in trade publications and more exposure to the market. Ultimately, though, Yasar has faith in the efficiency of the executive search model in finding the cream of the crop: “My experience shows, coupled with the research system that we have in place, that if you are a brilliant operator you will be found by us!”

Once the graduate has their foot in the door, what skills should they possess in order to develop their career in corporate communications? In their book Corporate Communication: Strategic Adaptation for Global Practice, Michael B. Goodman and Peter B. Hirsch identify five core competencies: technical skill, product and market knowledge, business leadership, the industry sector environment, and reputation management. But given the horizontal, collaborative organisational structure, communicators also need to possess ‘soft’ skills and social intelligence. As de Callatay explains, “Obviously, clients preferably recruit communicators that have a track record of achievements and can demonstrate successful professional experience in previous positions. But the most important is that corporate communication professionals can never work in isolation. At all levels, they must develop a strong network of contacts, be curious about the world out there and have a very sound understanding of their role as key intermediaries between the organisation’s management and its stakeholders.” Monika Chmielewska-Żehaluk lists the essential qualities as “innate communication skills, interpersonal abilities, team-work, good manners, analytical capabilities and versatility.” In addition, she rates “unquenchable curiosity and intolerance for ordinariness and the quest for new solutions and continuous learning.”

On-going learning as an engine for career development is a theme picked up by Professor Watson: “Public relations practitioners and corporate communication professionals should always be looking to develop their competencies and analytical skills in order to deliver higher value and thus gain respect of senior management. That is aided by education and training. Those who want a satisfying career or have high ambitions must be life-long learners who are always ready to explore and enquire.” The acquisition of non-communication knowledge is widely seen a necessary for progression. The attention and respect of senior management will be awarded to team players, those with not just an awareness but knowledge of the whole organisation’s activities, from finance, operations and production as much as communication. Career opportunities that divert from communication can be valuable in creating a deeper, more rounded executive. Stagnation should be avoided. Christopher de Callatay feels very strongly about this: “A danger for professional communicators, in my view, is to stick too long to communication jobs, in other words, to be able to do nothing else in an organisation than holding a communication job. Generally speaking, you must be willing to move and take risk with your career. If you are not, you are unlikely to gain the broad background of diverse experience necessary to be competitive for a senior executive position.” Furthermore, he argues, there is a further motivation for job flexibility: “Communicators in any given organisation must often act as agents of change. To be credible, they must themselves demonstrate their ability to understand and talk business, assume leadership responsibilities and master the language of figures.”

Where next?

So we’ve seen some suggestions for career progression, but is there an ultimate career goal? Where do you go when you’ve reached the top of your profession? Our experts agree that the idea of a fixed goal, an achievable pinnacle, is misleading. “The ‘top’ is relative” states Oskar Yasar. “The ever-demanding communications role means that the goal posts shift daily.” This unpredictability offers plenty of room for career development. “The great thing about communications,” says Florence Ranson, “is that one can always re-invent one’s career. When you get tired of the field you are in, you can put your experience and knowledge of the theory and strategy to the service of an entirely new field, where you have to learn again the issues, the core messages, understand a new industry, gain new technical knowledge, stand up for an ideal.” Oskar Yasar supports this idea of transferring your skills to different fields: “We have seen several examples of communications directors who have moved into CEO roles of trade associations or charities but, as the role changes internally and the dynamics shift, we have noticed communications directors now overseeing other aspects of the communications mix: investor relations, internal communications, digital communications (which is being prized away from marketing) and now also marketing. We have noticed in a few cases communications directors are now overseeing the marketing function”.

Whatever the direction and pace your career takes, the variability of the profession should provide enough new challenges to satisfy the most wide-ranging and restless career path. As Florence Ranson puts it, “I have met very few top communicators who felt they actually had done it all! Communicators are rarely blasé.”