Postcard from America

A communications director shares their take on the state of North American corporate communications

 

Nicholas Ashooh (@Nick_Ashooh), senior director of corporate and executive communication at APCO Worldwide, sits on the jury of the North-American Excellence Awards, where the Winners Day is being held in New York City on April 28 (for more information, about the event, see the end of the interview). A professional communicator of many years' standing, Nick recently took time out to reflect on his experiences and to share his view on the state of corporate communications in North America - where it's been, what it looks like today and where it's headed in the future.


You have handled some difficult situations in your roles with Public Service of New Hampshire and during the financial crisis at AIG. How would you characterise the US approach to crisis communications?

There has certainly been much greater emphasis on crisis communications planning in the US I think events ranging from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident to today’s terrorism and computer hacking have brought the need for crisis planning into sharp relief. It’s not a question of whether your organization will have a serious crisis, it’s a question of when. Corporate boards have recognized the need to be prepared as a matter of prudent business practice and risk mitigation. When a crisis happens, management will face two critical questions: how well-prepared was the organization and how effectively did it respond?

"Crisis communications in the US today is characterized more and more by a formalized, enterprise-wide planning process that promotes rapid response, greater transparency and heightened sensitivity to public impact."

So crisis communications in the US today is characterized more and more by a formalized, enterprise-wide planning process that promotes rapid response, greater transparency and heightened sensitivity to public impact. Social and digital communications and cell-phone-enabled citizen journalists have put an end to the days of “Let’s hope no one notices.” More and more organizations are recognizing that all bad news will eventually emerge, and that your organization is better off to deal with that bad news proactively and in a way that gives you some control over the timing and context of its release. And I think most organizations understand today that you get points for being forthright. People generally are very forgiving if you own up, say you’re sorry and make it right.

Your professional life in communications began 40 years ago. How have you seen the corporate communications function change and develop?

The biggest change has been the evolution of corporate communications from a one-directional communications function to an essential part of the business management process. When I started in communications, the function was mostly about putting out news releases, communicating some development, promoting a company position or putting the best face on something that went wrong. Today corporate communications is – or should be – working shoulder-to-shoulder with business management as decisions are being developed, providing inputs and perspectives that likely won’t come from operational management. And today the corporate communications professional is often looked to as a counsellor to the CEO and leadership team, facilitating consensus and ensuring alignment with corporate strategy and values. In short, the chief communications officer today helps their organization make better decisions instead of merely communicating those decisions.

While with the metals and mining company Alcoa, you supervised the Alcoa Foundation: how does the work of such foundations help companies obtain that social license to operate?

Philanthropic activities should be aligned with an organization’s overall values and can play a valuable role in developing community assets, mitigating environmental impact and improving the overall quality of life where the organization has a presence. But stakeholder legitimacy and social license are the products of the cumulative actions of an enterprise and its people. An organization has to live its values in everything it does.

Values-based philanthropic activity is very important, but cannot make up for the shortcomings of an organization that fails to act in the interests of all stakeholders. In fact, when an organization is seen as acting in a way that is inconsistent with its values, some may view the organization’s philanthropic activity an insincere and cynical. And that can be worse than having no philanthropic program at all.

What kind of communication challenges face international companies looking to engage with the US market this year?

I think the disturbing rise in nationalism and protectionism, fanned by the rhetoric of the US presidential campaign, has to be a concern to international companies looking to engage with the US market. The acrimony and extreme partisanship in Washington is also unsettling and creates significant doubts about this country’s ability to address important policy issues. The controversy over whether to even hold a hearing about filling the Supreme Court vacancy is another manifestation of America’s policy dysfunction, and of course the election itself is a great source of uncertainty about the country’s future business climate and general direction.

"The disturbing rise in nationalism and protectionism, fanned by the rhetoric of the US presidential campaign, has to be a concern to international companies looking to engage with the US market."

At APCO Worldwide we’re seeing many international companies that are looking for help in navigating these uncertainties. It will probably get worse before it gets better. That sounds pessimistic, I know, but I believe it’s true.

And what does the future hold for communications in North America?

I wish I knew! But it does seem like several trends will continue. The increased use of data and sophisticated analytics seems certain to continue, probably in ways we can’t even envision right now. I think the role of the communicator as business partner, counsellor and integrator is also a durable trend, that is, until you can ask Siri for an integrated stakeholder engagement plan. And, unfortunately, it’s likely that the importance of crisis communications planning also will continue to grow.

"The role of the communicator as business partner, counsellor and integrator is also a durable trend, that is, until you can ask Siri for an integrated stakeholder engagement plant."

I don’t think any of these trends are unique to North America, but I think they will develop faster here. There will be tremendous pressure to continue to innovate in all endeavours and time and again America has been the leader in that department. Now, if America fails to rationalize its immigration policy, if we can’t keep the best and brightest on our shores, if protectionism and alarmist social policies win the day, I make take back those words. But I hope not.

Read Nicholas' 7 Crisis Tips for When the Roof Caves In on LinkedIn here.

Main image: Thinkstock.com



Nicholas Ashooh is a jury member at the North American Excellence Awards, a celebration of the best in North-American corporate communications and public relations and which is co-hosted by Communication Director. The highlight of the Excellence Awards is the winners day in New York on 28 April 2016, where communications professionals come together to celebrate the best in PR over the last year. The winner's day will include a symposium and a dinner: you can book your tickets here. For the latest on the global Excellence Awards community, follow @ExAw_Community