Is the traditional corporate communication function on the endangered species list?
Today, meeting a communication director with a master's degree in strategic management is more common than meeting one with a master in communication. Even engineers venture into our profession; so is it a profession? And if yes, what is the value we bring to the executive manager’s scorecard?
I my view the issue is twofold: what exactly do communications deliver that is of value to the company; and how do we need to behave to expand our functional remits and be a full member of an executive management team?
"What exactly do communications deliver that is of value to the company?"
What to deliver
Ten years ago, I worked for Equinor (at the time Statoil), a company under such public scrutiny that they were willing to invest in weekly reputation trackers and advanced media coverage analysis and paid campaigns. We could see the immediate impact of negative press or television campaign on the perception of the company. We also measured trust in leadership. As the State’s oil company, extracting and commercialising the oil resource of the country, public trust was an obvious must-have.
Equinor worked with all the tools of marketing, communication, brand building, internal communications and so on, all seamlessly orchestrated under a very astute leader, Reidaer Gjærum. He lifted the function to become an enabler to the company's success and gained a strong position on the executive management board.
When I moved to a more commercial company, my role changed. DNV GL also has a strong social mission and the vision of having a global impact for a sustainable future, a vision that employees took to heart and which drove their behaviours and attitudes. The company understood that the division between paid and unpaid channels is counterproductive. Therefore, the communications function was integrated with marketing. Traditional corporate communications have a lot to learn from marketing, as this function has been driven by metrics and data for many years and, with the development of CRM, they are able to provide ROI (return on investment) as marcoms results are linked directly into the sales funnel. The evolution of digital communication channels and social media (and increasingly cost-effective technologies to measure across multiple dimensions) has given communications functions many new possibilities.
I would argue that this is because the communications industry is in a phase of seeking a common standard for measurement. That is why you see lots of players coming up with different models: academia, industry associations, agencies and in-house communications teams are all bringing suggestions to the table. The AMEC framework is an admirable first attempt at bringing the industry together to reach a standard; but will our business people accept it? Explaining the difference between output and outcomes can be challenging, so at DNV GL we used a simpler model, starting with defining the business objectives that communication could help achieve while differentiating from competitors and strengthening the company position. We did target group analysis to end up developing the messaging thought the most effective channels.
Did the strategy work? Did it influence our target groups perceptions and behaviours in the way we wanted? To make our results relevant to the business, we measured the impact in a Four R Model, thanks to former chief communications officer Stefan Nerpin. We had many KPI-interested communications professionals in DNV GL at that time, and we ended up with a staggering 64 metrics or KPIs to choose from, neatly organised into functions and the four Rs.
- Reach Broaden the number of people that know us, creating awareness
- Reputation Promote trust in our purpose, vision and values, and technology foresight
- Relation Create a favorable perception
- Revenue enablement Turn stakeholders in advocates and attract prospects to choose DNV GL (Revenue in terms of sales was the target in units with a CMR system)
The theory behind the Four Rs is a very old model (AIDA: attract Attention, awaken Interest, create Desire and get Action) developed in 1898. It shows steps in a customer's journey; it is often referred to as the marketing funnel, and explainshow to move audiences from not knowing us at all (where we first need to attract attention) to getting interested and going deeper into our content, and finally taking action, downloading a report, signing up for seminars or sending a request.
The public sector: a different approach?
The mission of my current organisation, the Research Council of Norway (RCN), is to enable research that contributes to a sustainable development and to foster innovation. RCN invests close to one billion euros to fund research and innovation.
One of many things that attracted me to the RCN was the fact that communication is organised as a business area, with specific responsibility for part of RCN’s contribution towards our owners (Norwegian governmental departments). RCN also has the societal role of creating understanding and interest in the contribution of research and a fact-based public debate. Communications work towards all stakeholders with internal identity, external branding through the media, conferences, digital marketing, relationship building and research communication.
We have a different set of KPIs structured around three parameters:
- Knowledge and reach: number of applicants that have heard about our funding mechanisms, the percentage of the population that is interested in research and innovation, and so on.
- Reputation: people’s trust in research, the extent to which our advice is taken onboard, trust in the RCN and its mechanisms, user experience and readability index score.
- Mobilise engagement for scientific methods and critical thinking in schools, conversion rates, employee engagement for strategic goals, etc.
To conclude, the public sector needs different content in KPIs to be relevant to their organisation, but the method and approach can be the same as for the private sector.
How to behave?
I have found that the role communication plays in a company often depends on the attitude of the leadership more than on the qualifications of their communications team. However, there is much that communications leaders can do to influence this. We need to participate in management discussions on a par with our peers; having read the papers in advance, the communicator should act as a leader and not as a support (writing minutes or suggesting impulsive communications initiatives).
We should deliver context from the outside world, measure the evolving perception of key stakeholders and the drivers for these, and reflect internally the trends that are likely to shape the company's future. Set your own bar for what a communication professional is: compare with your most respected peers, contribute and be visible in peer networks, and drive academia within your field to further develop and validate the role corporate communications and marketing can play.
These are some of the features I have observed in successful executives within our field, in addition to delivering tangible and relevant results. Being influential and respected is of course what it all boils down to.
The road ahead
Today's businesses are run on data, and the communications function is no exception. Chief executive officers typically come from finance, sales and operations, where they have been reporting and analysing date for much longer. They need to start seeing strategically-relevant KPIs and reports from us communicators. If they continue to be exposed to communications output rather than communications outcomes and impact, it will be hard for us to argue the strategic value of our function.
More sophisticated and relevant methods of measurement are driven by communications teams who have long since recognised the need to measure; but they often lack clarity on what to measure, so they measure everything. And if you measure everything you end up with confusing data from which it is difficult to derive meaning.
We need our Revenue and EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) for communications. We need to be able to demonstrate how a well-crafted position strategy with messages that resonates in the target groups, in paid or unpaid channels can contribute to company's growth and prosperity.
"We need a Revenue and EBITA for communications."
Communications professionals are storytellers. For years, we have been experts at taking data from other parts of our organisations and turning them into engaging stories. We need to take our own medicine on how we present our own data – and ourselves.