Where business strategy meets communications

On the threshold of a new chapter in his career, communications veteran Herbert Heitmann reflects on "the sweet spot" where business strategy and communications meet

In 2006, the European Association of Communication Directors was founded by a diverse group of communications professionals, led by industry veteran Herbert Heitmann.

This year, at the EACD’s General Assembly on June 12, Heitmann will step down as president of the association, a position he has held uninterrupted since that November day 12 years ago. However, he already has his eyes set on the future: the former communications executive at SAP, Shell and Bayer is moving into the consultancy world, initially as co-founder and chairman of BoldT partners and now as founder of Karaktero, bringing with him not only years of experience on the executive level but also a determination to finally create a new kind of consultancy.

Interview by David Phillips

You have had a successful run in leading in-house positions at major organisations: what is the motivation now to move into the consultancy world, first at BoldT Partners which you cofounded with Jeremy Galbraith and now as head of your own consultancy, Karaktero?

After having the opportunity to do this fantastic job at three great companies, taking on a similar role would be challenging because, if you want to continue to learn and develop, at some point the space that’s left becomes rather limited. When I look back at what I most enjoyed at those companies, it was co-developing strategies together with the business leaders, particular when the reputation and the brand played a crucial role for the successful implementation of those strategies.

Whether I was working at Shell on the societal acceptance of the business model, or at SAP on the corporate desire to be seen as a much more strategic player, or at Bayer on a large-scale transformation from a chemical conglomerate to a well-rounded life sciences company, the issues were big strategic challenges from a business perspective that went hand in hand with equally big strategic challenges from a communication, reputation and brand perspective. So I realised I should focus on providing this kind of strategic advice to whoever could benefit from it.

That’s when the idea was formed to move into consulting, but in particular the area where business strategy and communications strategy really need to be co-developed.

Consultancy work is a crowded field: what makes your vision different to a classic PR/PA agency?

Over the last 10 years I noticed that classic management consultancies, sometimes even banks or legal institutions, are increasingly providing communication, reputation and brand-related advice to the C-Suite. They clearly have the attention of the C-Suite while public relations/public affairs agencies, the experts in this field, somehow lost touch with the C-Suite.

My personal experience is that public relations consultants often do not bring the business and technology savviness necessary to participate in C-Suite conversations.

"Public relations/public affairs agencies, the experts in this field, somehow lost touch with the C-Suite."

Management consultancies, on the other hand, are already part of these conversations, have the access and attempt to extend their portfolio to also talk about reputation, brand communications or stakeholder engagement.

The problem is they are not as strong when it comes to these areas as they are in the fields of management consulting. Therefore, there is a space for someone who understands the business and technology, who is familiar with the kind of conversations that happen in the C-suite, while concurrently having proven expertise in the fields of communications, brand and stakeholder engagement.

This is the sweet spot that we aim to fill.

Herbert Heitmann on the new role of the CCO, filmed at The EACD Forum event in Madrid, November 2017

You’ve often spoken about the importance of reconciling company strategy, brand promise and reputation. Is your vision of a new kind of consultancy the next logical step in the journey to solve that problem of how to reconcile what a company promises and how stakeholders experience that promise?

Yes, that’s exactly the natural consequence of this experience: that only when the brand promise – that is, the combination of what the company, management and strategy actually stands for – is close to what stakeholders experience, do you have a chance to build and manage a good reputation.

When you sit at the board table and decide on business strategy, it is necessary that someone reminds you of the brand promise, puts an honest mirror in front of you and shows you how you are perceived outside.

"When you sit at the board table and decide on business strategy, it is necessary that someone reminds you of the brand promise."

If a company wants to be seen as the most innovative energy company, you can’t be pleasing the board room with impressive pictures of innovative engineering work, while at the same time there’s leakage from a rusty pipe somewhere in the North Sea.

The external world will not buy that you are an innovative energy company. So, you need to bring these pieces closer together if you want to build and develop the trust needed to earn the social licence to operate. And this is why communication strategy and business strategy cannot be separate.

You’ve spoken about how CCOs at  Fortune 500 corporations would benefit from an external perspective when they want to review their strategic approach, or benchmark their performance against competitors, or receive validation in selling new concepts to the board. What other positions outside the upper echelon could also benefit from the model of communications consultancy that you are proposing?

There are many small or midsize companies that don’t have the communication resources and infrastructure in-house but are facing the same kind of challenges in terms of business model that the big corporations face.

They need a much broader set of skills delivered to them to assist the business leaders either by establishing an in-house structure or supporting them in a certain project with advice and services.

Another interesting field is the start-up world. Start-ups themselves probably don’t have the bandwidth and resources to deal with this kind of consulting in their early state, but the investors that support the start-ups, i.e. venture capitals, are as eager to see that these start-ups are successful and understand that not only the financial performance is crucial but also that these companies communicate effectively with their stakeholders.

And since they have the resources, I see here an interesting opportunity too, to provide this kind of valuable service.

Throughout your career you’ve been a trusted advisor to CEOs: what is your latest thinking about the relationship between CEOs and communications?

Recently we’ve seen the CEOs at VW and Deutsche Bank being replaced by individuals who, aside from being a top manager, also seems to understand what it takes to effectively communicate: consider the letter to employees that Christian Sewing at Deutsche Bank wrote. The motivation for these replacements seems to be (at least based on what has been publicised) because the incumbents were judged to have not effectively engaged with stakeholders and build trust with them.

These are the things we deal with for a living. Today’s supervisory boards at DAX or Fortune 500 companies start looking beyond managerial excellency in their potential CEOs and whether they can trust them, but more and more importantly, whether the environment they operate in will trust that person.

Was building a path for communications to become a more strategic advisor one of the reason you founded the EACD back in 2006?

That, and standardising the profession. In communications, even the title is not defined. We often use Chief Communication Officer in an effort to harmonise the terminology, but when you go to LinkedIn and see what kinds of titles there are, Chief Communication Officer is not as established as Chief Financial Officer, Chief HR Officer or Chief Marketing Officer.

These titles are much more homogenous because there’s more of a standard understanding of what those jobs are about. One of the motivations for me to co-found the EACD and to drive it for the last 12 years was to help standardise this profession. Every other profession is held accountable to define what success means upfront, what resources they need, and then the deliver, or better yet, over-achieve it. Only the communication department is often not held up to the same standard.

"One of the motivations for me to co-found the EACD and to drive it for the last 12 years was to help standardise this profession."

On the other hand, we are not always prepared and equipped to live up to these standards. We are obviously good enough communicators that we can declare success, but to be willing and able to say what success would look like and what we need in order to deliver that success, is not necessarily a common approach.

And for me this is a symptom of a not-yet matured profession and therefore a great opportunity for an association like the EACD to contribute to the maturing of this profession. Over the years I have already seen development in this direction.

What have been some of your highlights of your time at the EACD?

The first highlight came rather early. I underestimated how ripe the time was for the creation of such an association. If you look at the growth in membership, particularly in the first years, it was quite stunning, and showed that such an association was long overdue here in Europe.

" I underestimated how ripe the time was for the creation of such an association."

Another highlight has been to witness so many brilliant, highly motivated and thoroughly engaged communicators from across Europe who come together with nothing else but a shared passion for the profession and who work together peacefully, constructively and with a sense of fun, a kind of work experience that in a corporate setting you often strive for in vain.

That was a major part of the joy of building and running this association. And when I follow the conversations we have at our events and in our content platforms, what I see is the idea of building a common understanding of what distinguishes good public relations from the rest, establishing certain kind of standards. It is happening, and that’s very satisfying to see.

And in the future, what directions should the EACD take?

It’s clear to me that an institution such as the EACD benefits from diversity, not only in the membership but also in its leadership and I’m very certain that my successor and the team that supports him or her will take this opportunity to drive the EACD further and bring in further new ideas. What still fascinates me about communication is the amount and frequency of disruptive change that is happening as a result of new technologies and new phenomenon.

This requires the EACD to remain highly agile to respond to this in an opportune way. I am very confident that with a new leadership in place, this will be the case.

To continue the discussion with Herbert about the future of strategic communications, contact him at [email protected] or www.karaktero.net.

Herbert Heitmann

Before founding his communications strategy consultancy Karaktero, Dr Herbert Heitmann was most recently Founding Chairman of BoldT, a consultancy firm which he co-founded together with Ex-Burson-Marsteller EMEA CEO Jeremy Galbraith. Prior to that, he was Executive Vice President of Global Brand, Communications and Government Relations at life sciences company Bayer (2013-2016). Other previous roles include Executive Vice President of external Communications at oil and gas company Shell (2010-2103) and Chief Communications Officer at business software leader SAP (1998-2010).  Dr. Heitmann is also President of the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD), which he co-founded in 2006. Other active roles include Partner at LiveTube Ltd, a curated live-news platform, and Member of the Board of Trustees at Arthur W. Page Society, the leading American communicators network. He began his career as engineer and scientist, in areas of gold-mining and disposable diapers, nuclear and environmental research.