Why did I leave the consultancy world for a corporate position?
Frankly, it was an offer that I could not refuse. If you are asked to build the global public affairs capability for a multinational that operates in more than 100 countries, working directly for the CEO and Chairman, then that is a unique challenge.
Back in 2000, not many of my corporate colleagues had such a global role and responsibility. Furthermore, as the company had faced some real issues on the regulatory front impacting its way of doing business, I was confident that senior management also understood the importance of their engagement with policy and legislative developments. This was confirmed when I joined Unilever.
I was immediately made part of the strategic business team that was preparing the largest acquisition that the company had ever made. They realised that the public affairs and media campaign were critical to ensuring support for the acquisition, both inside the companies and with the decision makers and influencers in the merger approval process.
Even though it was a complex acquisition covering many geographic and product markets, we were able to get the merger swiftly approved and make the senior appointments in the newly-merged business. The integrated approach between the business, legal, public affairs and media teams, as well as the commitment of senior management to explain the importance of this merger to the authorities, politicians, employees and media, were critical to this success.
Breadth and depth
Personally, moving into a corporate role was a major change. Consultancy and corporate positions come with very different opportunities and challenges. I was responsible for setting up the Brussels office for Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, the largest privately-owned public relations consultancy. The office was doing very well: we had double-digit growth, recruited and trained additional staff every year and worked for an impressive list of international multinationals.
And I very much enjoyed running the office, managing several strategic consultancy projects and pitching for new business. Working with several clients at the same time, planning future actions with senior management and having the inhouse capacity to provide the client with an integrated public relations and public affairs service across the globe is a great environment to work in.
Furthermore, you get to know and experience different corporate cultures, decision-making processes and business operating models. Also, as a consultant, you gain a profound professional specialisation and knowledge. (In fact, often it is only when you have moved to a corporate position that you realise how much attention is paid inside consultancies to systematically improving skills.) Sharing best practise within and across the different communication disciplines, understanding new trends, paying attention to building new capabilities and skills are issues high on the agenda. Consultancies tend to lead and pioneer new capabilities, with corporations often following behind.
Another observation I would like to share is the breadth and depth of communication experience you are able to gain as a consultant in a relatively short period. This tends to be difficult to match in a corporate position, particularly in the first years of your career.
But, at the same time, as a consultant you only get a snapshot of the company’s business priorities and challenges. You tend to be a member of the crew for a distinct project only. While working inhouse gives you the opportunity to fully engage with the broader business strategy, define and implement a focused reputation strategy and build a thorough sector and company-related understanding of the reputational opportunities and risks.
Keeping the company’s communications focused on delivering business value is a challenge and here the consultancy experience comes in useful. Your timesheet had to have hours that are linked to results if you wanted the client to continue to pay your fees! Generally, the communication discipline still has more work to do to improve accountability for how it manages the non-financial assets of the company.
Financial results are properly on the corporate agenda and shared monthly or quarterly but the management of its reputation with the relevant stakeholders does not necessarily benefit from a similarly structured reporting and senior management attention. Increasingly, companies realise that creation of stakeholder value is important and needs to be further professionalised and receive proper management attention in similar ways to tracking shareholder value.
Fitting in with the culture of the company that you’ve joined is essential when you work within a corporate role but also when you join an institutional bank, which I did recently. And if you are brought in to help deliver a change programme, you had better be sure that the senior management is fully committed to delivering change and realise that they are the role model for such change. Most head-hunters would confirm that corporate culture tends to be influenced by sector and ‘home’ nationality. So when you move from consultancy to a corporate role or change corporate sector, you have to think through whether or not you will be able to thrive and deliver in that culture.
Linked to the matter of culture is the importance that senior management attach to strategic communication and reputation management. Is communication represented at the senior management table and involved in shaping the decisions, or ‘just’ being asked to develop a communication plan for a management decision? A defining factor here will be senior management expectation and attitude, as well as whether the communication leader can engage in strategic deliberations outside the boundaries of communications.
This is all about the shift of communication from being a largely reactive and tactical capacity to operating as a strategic function. For the latter, different competencies are asked from communication leaders and their teams. The communication leader will need to be able to operate in the C-suite and have a good general business management understanding. When I joined the advanced management programme from Harvard Business School, only two out of the 140 participants came from the communication discipline.
This score is likely to change in the future: I believe that companies will increasingly realise that it makes business sense to develop the business management skills of their communication leaders and provide them with a network of peers outside their direct communication field.
In order to systematically build the company’s reputation, an integrated approach of communication (media, corporate communication, NGO relations, employee communications, branding), investor relations, government or institutional relations, marketing and corporate responsibility is required. These roles still tend to be part of different functions within the company. Working together and operating within a governance model (where there is clarity as to whom is responsible and accountable for what) while having buy-in of the company-wide reputation strategy and its messaging by all relevant functions, is no mean task.
But it is essential as the audiences are interlinked; a journalist regularly uses the view of an analyst in his article and a parliamentarian regularly gets requests and information from NGOs. And we all put our opinions online. This makes effective coordination and working with cross-functional teams an important requirement for telling a consistent story.
There are several important communication challenges which I feel are relevant across the consultancy, corporate and institutional spectrum. These include dealing with increasing transparency, scrutiny and complexity of the business and or its products. Let me explain:
Technology has empowered citizens and gave a new dimension to interacting with a company. Increasingly, companies need to think through how to develop their digital reputation and communicate in a transparent manner. For me, transparency has a new professional dimension since I joined the European Investment Bank (EIB) earlier this year. The bank adopted a revised transparency policy in February 2010 and operates on the basis that information on the bank’s operations should be disclosed unless there are valid legal or commercial reasons to protect it. It is excellent to have the highest standards of transparency and openness.
From a professional point of view, I believe it is equally important to share information and data within a proper context or underpinned by a constructive conversation on it for it to be truly meaningful.
It has also become more complicated to communicate products. I have found this to be true for the two very different sectors in which I have worked - the consumer goods sector and the re-insurance and banking sector. In consumer goods, the challenge is to explain the positive impact of the inclusion of science in consumer products and obtaining the financial premium through being able to make appropriate health claims on the products. In the financial sector, it are the innovative financial products that allow us to take more risk for more value versus the straightforward loans or products.
Unless you are addressing a specialised audience, nuances tend to get lost in communication, but your story has to work for both the informed and the general audience. The professional challenge is to build the story for your specialised audience and reach (or, at a minimum, not confuse) the general public.
The recent economic turmoil has been a painful reminder that managing your reputation is a critical business asset. However, the EIB (where I am responsible for corporate responsibility and communication) is in a unique situation: its reputation actually grew due to the crisis. The bank delivered an important part of the European recovery package by providing credit and liquidity to the economy by financing sound business projects on favourable terms.
It also made a special effort for SMEs and climate action projects. It is quite rewarding to work for an organisation that is not only commercially sound but more importantly makes a concrete contribution to making Europe an attractive region to work and live.
Reflecting on professional choices that I have made so far, there is a clear cross-over between being able to work between influencing or implementing policy and legislation, delivering business priorities and having the opportunity to build and sharpen the role of communication or reputation management within the organisation. Creating buy-in within the company and building understanding and support with relevant stakeholders of the company’s business strategy and long-term vision is an interesting field to work in.
Going forward, reputation management is in my view a critically important indicator of business performance. The communication discipline has an essential role in further shaping and demonstrating its contribution to overall business performance both as it relates to share price and broader stakeholder value.