Role model USA    

What European communicators can learn from the motherland of public relations

Communicators should see themselves as business people who actively and measurably contribute to the added value of their organisation.

For inspiration, European communication departments could look to their counterparts in the  motherland of marketing and public relations. 

Two principles that are of course also practiced in many modern European communication departments are essential: first, we must not limit ourselves to the communicative “packaging”, but should also be involved in shaping the strategy and best practices of the company. Second, we have to measure ourselves against universally accepted indicators. That is, focus on the outcome of our work (increasing reputation, sales or profits) and not just look at the output (for example, reach or tonality) or even the input (number of activities).

(Image: Unsplash/ Brandon Day) 

The first step must be, of course, to derive the communication strategy from the corporate strategy. The days of the communications department as a mere "writing room" are over.

Not all communicators take the next, decisive step: to actively contribute to the development of corporate strategy. This means that many organisations don’t benefit from an important perspective our profession has to offer.

In order for communicators to be shape the business reality, not just its external presentation, we must meet marketing, sales and finance at eye level. This is only possible by assuming responsibility for the success of the company as a whole.

Seven factors that make the difference  

1. Review your own attitude. 
There is a big difference between someone regarding him- or herself as a communicator first and foremost, and someone who views the entire organization as his or her playing field. 

A business professional with expert knowledge in communications is what is in demand – in that order. In some situations, for example, it can make sense to invest more into the sales force than into marketing and communications. Some problems cannot be solved by more transparency or communications campaigns, but only by adapting business practices to external realities. 

In both cases, our expertise can provide important input and support – even beyond the direct, functional area of responsibility. That is how leading businesses of the food industry, such as Mars, have embraced self-regulation – for example regarding the reformulation of products, the reduction of portion sizes and by renouncing advertisements aimed at children. 

2. Providing orientation
Businesses need a minimum amount of social acceptance in order to flourish. To ensure this is one of the essential tasks of a CEO. Societal demands have grown – especially in our profession.

Recently, Larry Fink, CEO of the asset management company Black Rock, has lent his voice to this debate. He dedicated this year’s investor letter to his demand of all CEOs to ensure the purpose and sustainability of their businesses. The topic has arrived in the social mainstream – employees and customers have the same demands. Thus, the borders between internal and external communication start to fade away. 

Purpose and authenticity are the key words that shape the discussion in the USA. However, you do not always have to be saving the world. Small steps can also improve peoples’ lives. John Legere (CEO of T-Mobile US), Warren Buffett and Elon Musk are examples of CEOs that take a personal stand and decisively shape the perception of their respective companies through their visibility.

"Purpose and authenticity are the key words that shape the discussion in the USA."

3. Reducing complexity
We admire successful advertising campaigns because they are able to convey an important message within seconds. Behind this is the art of simplifying complex subjects, thinking in target group-developed USPs and formulating gutsy claims. This should be true for any kind of internal or external communication. Of course, strategy papers are not commercials and substance is essential. However, only a strategy that is understandable and memorable can be successful. The term “elevator pitch” originated in America, as did the ideal medium for it, Twitter.

4. Creating internal understanding
Too often, our industry works with phrases that nobody outside the department understands. This is especially problematic in businesses, since communication experts only make up a small minority of the workforce (unlike in agencies). In order to win partners, therefore, we have to speak the language of economists and managers. Those who live abroad know the feeling of learning new vocabulary and balancing out a lack of common experiences with the help of analogies. This is exactly how it works with modern in-house communicators. 

5. Choosing the right KPIs
Corporate communications and public affairs need to be able to illustrate their contributions to the success of their organisation – wherever possible, by using the same KPIs by which marketing and sales are measured, or at least, by using comparable outcome measures.

"Corporate communications and public affairs need to be able to illustrate their contributions to the success of their organisation."

It is essential that KPIs be measured in euros wherever possible, and that they be generally understood and accepted by all decision-makers. The duration and costs of recruitment processes, the effects of regulatory frameworks on sales and profits, sales figures of social media campaigns are some examples. 

6. Taking up trends
Communication needs to be open to new things and facilitate growth. An example for a perfect interlock of marketing, communications and technology is Domino’s, one of the leading pizza chains in the USA. A few years ago, the business stood on the edge of the abyss. The turning point came with the digitalisation of the customer journey, which began in 2014.

One look at the campaign website Domino’s AnyWare demonstrates how the combination of communication and technology generates attention and orders. Today, customers can order their pizza via 11 different digital channels. Creative experiments such as the Zero Click App provide new possibilities for ordering and new content for communication at the same time. The stock price has quadrupled since the start of the campaign. 

7. Transferring competences
Crisis-proof communicators know how to get the right people from all departments together, bringing about decisions, and communicating these in an effective way. Thus, we can also help make strategy meetings efficient outside of a crisis. We need to make this connection understandable to all decision-makers in the company. The demand is high!. 

Jens Christmann

In his current role as Senior Global Director, Public Affairs at Mars, Jens Christmann is based in Chicago and leads global public affairs at Mars Wrigley. Prior to that, he was global external affairs director for Wrigley, having previously been head of corporate affairs and member of the German management board at Wrigley.