Between you, you represent decades of professional experience in corporate communications. During your careers, what have been some of the biggest developments in the way communicators work?
MARJORIE BENZKOFER The obvious answer is technology. When I started at ComEd in 1993, I used a pager and a cell phone that came in a large shoulder bag. But perhaps more subtle and even more profound is the interconnectiveness of stakeholders. Then we could talk to employees through one channel, regulators through another, each in its own swim lane. But today they talk to each other and we have to be taking a holistic approach managing reputation. Usually when companies do stakeholder research it is with one or two audiences, rarely taking a 360 degree view. When we don’t invest in research to listen to what our multiple stakeholders are saying and thinking, we create blind spots for our organisations that can have lethal effects.
NICHOLAS ASHOOH 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 organisation make better decisions instead of merely communicating those decisions.
The FBI vs. Apple case earlier this year was a landmark event: what are the repercussions for corporate communications?
J. CHRISTOPHER PREUSS It just illustrates how complex and nuanced the issues around security and privacy have become. These are intense and important societal debates that must be approached with exceeding caution and thought – it is dancing on the razor’s edge. The biggest issue for companies is to not put a stake in the ground before fully weighing all the potential options to avoid the controversy in the first place. Apple probably lost as many customers as it may have gained by drawing such a strong line. In the end, it was a moot issue since the FBI cracked the phone another way.
“(In the US) there tends to be greater specialism silos in communications.”
MARJORIE BENZKOFER This tension between our expectations of transparency and privacy is going to further flare up in many different ways. Management teams need to be reviewing every aspect of their business to do risk assessments and scenario planning around these issues. The court of public opinion moves swiftly when companies are caught in the crosshairs of these two competing forces. The middle of a crisis is not the time to begin contemplating your values and belief systems when making decisions on these issues, which can creep into employee privacy, customer information, product quality, workplace violence and myriad others. How will you behave and what guiding principles will guide your decisions when the public is demanding full transparency on an issue and also protection of their privacy?
ANDY PHAROAH It is a good example, albeit an extreme one, of companies needing to be willing and able to engage in public discussion about difficult issues. When you choose to do that you will not make everyone happy. The worlds of politics, policy, business and reputation are coming closer together. So companies need to have a point of view on a wide range of issues outside of their core. The communications profession in the US is not helped in being able to engage in this due to its discipline silos. From my own day to day work I can say that we as a company are being more active (and more publically active) in a range of policy issues ranging from fighting climate change, responding to issues around added sugars, artificial colors or GMOs or being able to offer equal benefits to associates regardless of their sexuality. While not everyone will agree with the stances we have taken, on the whole clear, open and consistent opinions are at least respected.
The world is transfixed by the US primaries: how are they impacting your work?
MARJORIE BENZKOFER It has proved to be one of the most unpredictable election cycles ever, It is an ever-unfolding story that has shocked even the most bombastic of pundits, and the final outcomes likely surpasses our imagination at this point. But one thing is very clear. The swell of support for these so-called “fringe” candidates from the left and the right is clearly driven by a segment of the American society that is deeply disenfranchised and angry. The fact that both parties were caught off guard by the fierce fury says that they weren’t doing a good enough job listening. It is a good reminder to corporations not to ignore those fringe audiences who may not be immediately impacting your balance sheet but have the ability to knock your organisation off its feet if you aren’t paying attention.
ANDY PHAROAH I’m equally transfixed and it is a truly fascinating campaign to watch. As a UK citizen but only a US resident I have both the luxury and the disadvantage of having to watch from the side-lines rather than be an active participant. However from a day to day basis it is not making much difference to my work aside from the fact that in the broadcast channels there’s less time for other news which can be both good and bad. Post-election who the president is will clearly have an impact on how the US is viewed externally. As a US company which sells products in 180 or so countries we have a keen interest in this – but it is best to take a long-term view on this and remember that it’s always darkest before the dawn.
What kind of communication challenges face international companies looking to engage with the US market this year?
J. CHRISTOPHER PREUSS The uncertainty of the election outcome, for sure. Each potential candidate could bring a radically different set of circumstances regarding trade and commerce. Until the election is settled, it will very much be a wait and see approach for most multi-nationals.
NICHOLAS ASHOOH 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. 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.
ANDY PHAROAH The most obvious challenge is that the focus of the media and paid airtime is on matters of politics. There is less time and less room for focus on other things aside from celebrity. A bitterly fought political campaign combined with what feels like a climate of increasingly extreme events including terrorism, market shocks and even weather does encourage increasing polarisation of points of view and even ‘facts’. That can be a difficult climate for companies, for while it good to have points of view it very dangerous to be perceived to have ‘politics’. And with international trade having few friends in the current election cycle then it would be an easy trap to fall in. However we should always remember with an increasingly ‘high/low’ media plus the everyday struggles of life, most US citizens’ thoughts and activities this year will not be defined by the race for the Oval Office. They will be as open to a relevant and well-articulated message as at any other time.
Chris, you’ve long-standing experience in the automotive industry. What kind of communication strategies did you use to navigate the storms that have hit it over recent years?
J. CHRISTOPHER PREUSS The industry is in remarkable shape when you consider what it has been though over the past several years. Given the intensely global nature of the business, prosperity in one part of the world likely means struggle somewhere else. But in balance, things are far better than anyone would have predicted back in 2010. Having said that, more change will hit the industry over the next several years than has arguably happened in the past 50. New mobility models and the advent of autonomous driving will drive massive transformation in the years ahead – it is truly exciting. As for strategies with managing the changes and the ever-present threat of crisis – that would take a book. At the end of the day, it’s all about the fundamentals of solid advocacy – tell the truth, tell it early, and tell it always. Never ever say “it can’t get worse than this!” because it can and likely will. Never sell out your own personal integrity or reputation in contending an issue for your company or organisation. And finally, remember that in all the experiences, no matter how dark the storm, the sun does eventually rise again – never lose your perspective.
Andy, you’re actually originally from the UK, only moving to the US in late 2009. Before then you were based in Munich and before that London. What would you say are the main differences in approaches to communications and work between Europe and the US?
ANDY PHAROAH Personally I find the core positivity of the American outlook and the belief that ‘it can be done’ very attractive, particularly when it is combined with a healthy dose of European realism or cynicism. Perhaps the biggest difference I have noticed relates to the corporate affairs profession. Maybe because of size, history and the different epicenters of Washington and New York there tends to be greater specialism silos in communications. That leads to deep expertise but it also limits cross-cutting thinking and it reduces the number of well-rounded corporate affairs professionals who are equally happy handling both complex corporate communications and public affairs. This presents an obvious challenge when it comes to issues management. However the modern multi-national company needs to approach communications with all audiences holistically – and silos don’t help this
What does the future hold for communications in North America?
NICHOLAS ASHOOH 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. 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. I don’t think any of these trends are unique to North America, but 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 rationalise 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.
“I find the core positivity of the American outlook and the belief that ‘it can be done’ very attractive.”
MARJORIE BENZKOFER We do a great deal of work at FleishmanHillard looking at the alignment between a company’s brand (everything it does and says) and a company’s reputation (the shared perceptions of all stakeholders). Often we find that brand and reputation are not managed holistically within organisations. Stakeholders are managed by different departments (human resources, government affairs, marketing, etc.) and channels of communication are fragmented throughout the organisation. Our departments and roles are still set up in these antiquated, separate silos. We must rethink our department structures, our planning process and even the talent and types of jobs we have in communications and marketing if we are to help our companies manage brand and reputation effectively throughout the whole company.
ANDY PHAROAH The future for communications is very bright. 20 years ago having a strong communications function was an optional extra for a company now, for the most part, it is absolutely essential component of success. Reputation is one of the single most important contributors to the long-term success of a company. So communications has a huge opportunity.
J. CHRISTOPHER PREUSS It is simply an amazing time to be a communicator. I could have never imagined in my 25-plus years of being in the profession that we’d see such a diversity and efficiency of ways to communicate. Finally, the public relations professionals are gaining the upper hand in the eternal struggle between paid and earned platforms – the role of the CCO is becoming increasingly strategic and essential to the C-suite in most companies.
Nicholas Ashooh, Marjorie Benzkofer, Andy Pharoah and J. Christopher Preuss sit on the jury of the North American Excellence Awards, hosted by Communication Director. For more about the awards, visit www.excellence-awards.com