This article first appeared in Communicate magazine in October 2014 featuring PR Moves’ Eleanor Karadimitriadis and is republished on the Career Moves Group blog with the publishers permission.
The great science fiction writers of decades past predicted how business would change in the future. Even Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland took a stance on the closing gap between business and consumers. The worlds of tomorrow were not always utopias. More often then not, the future was depicted as a technologically-ravaged horror.
From Cyberdyne to Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation to the Soylent Corporation, even Back to the Future’s BiffCo or the seemingly-benign Resources Development Administration of James Cameron’s Avatar, science fiction is not kind to business. The future communicator is even more sinister in these portrayals; Orwell’s Big Brother character is one of the most portentous communicators in all of fiction, Battlestar Galactica’s Number Five model is a marketer who outs the human-like Cylons, Star Wars’ C3PO is literally a robot. The future, according to science fiction, is bleak for the corporate communicator.
The new model communicator in 2014, however, is nothing near as forbidding as its fictional cohorts. At least not yet. Technology has transformed a paper and ink world into one as apprised of the latest gadgets and tools as it once was concerned with spin. The modern company is one that no longer hides from technology but embraces it, though not quite to the level that Terminator’s Cyberdyne did, thankfully.
The world of tomorrow is one defined by digital, and that alone can be scary enough. Argos, which still sends out 15m catalogues twice a year, was staring down its obsolescence about five years ago as digital retail began to overtake the capacity for high street stores to compete – particularly in terms of fulfilment and delivery. Now Argos is the third-largest online retailer in the UK, says director of corporate affairs at the Home Retail Group (HRG), Chris Wermann. “Thats a critical part of being a business now,” he says of building a relationship on digital and social media, “You’ve got to fit in with people’s lives, they’re not going to fit in specifically with you.”
Eleanor Karadimitriadis, head of PR Moves at recruitment specialist Career Moves Group, says recruitment has changed due to this focus on digital and social. She says, “Digital and social tech have added a whole new layer to everything that a CCO and ICO does. They are still expected to create a compelling narrative but once that has been done it needs to be adjusted for each channel, with any potential issues that may arise considered and planned for.”
Wermann agrees, pointing to the drastic changes social has made to not only the Home Retail Group’s communications, but to Argos as a business, “Most people coming into the market now have those skills, they live on social media. The fantastic thing is how quickly and aggressively we as a business recognised the need to be involved in the next generation of buyers – that’s people in their 20s – these are the next generation of shoppers. The critical part in that is Argos wants to be a digital leader with a human touch.”
Despite the focus on Millennials, however, Argos is also heavily involved in non-profit Go On, which works with the 20% of British adults who are not online and delivers digital confidence. HRG’s CEO Terry Duddy sits on the board of the charity and Wermann’s team has taken its principles to heart in attempting to make digital an unobtrusive aspect of the business. He adds, “We recruited the new MD for Argos about two-and-a-half years ago and his objective was to look at Argos and develop the new strategy to be a digital leader. Within that was a big focus on how digital has fundamentally changed the way people lead their lives and as a business we need to lead our business and interact with our customers in a way that wasn’t intrusive, but highly accessible.”
Changes in technology have shifted recruitment and the types of skills communicators must have in addition to changing the attitude of corporate leaders toward communications. Karadimitriadis says she has not worked with a client in the past three years that has not outlined social or digital skills when looking for a new hire. Most agree, however that digital must be part of the corporate communicator’s arsenal, not his or her entire skillset.
Karadimitriadis says, “I wouldn’t say that specialism is more important – most organisations look for a well rounded communications professional – digital, marketing, writing, storytelling and an understanding of the entire marketing mix form part of a standard job description nowadays.”
Tim Fallon, CEO and managing partner for capital markets and corporate affairs at Instinctif, agrees, “CCOs are able to recognise that they themselves will not be specialists across the board, but they are able to build teams that give them that breadth. It’s highly unusual to have a CCO that is highly digitally savvy. But what they do need to do is understand it and the impact it can have and how they can shape it against their strategy.” On the agency side, Danny Whatmough, head of consumer digital in EMEA at Weber Shandwick, has been involved in the PRCA’s PR Agency of the Future project, which has looked at the ways in which the communications industry will have to change in response to digital and other modern influences, says, “I’d prefer to bring someone in that is digitally- or socially-minded and teach them about communications and public relations, versus have somebody who is perfectly formed at that side of things but isn’t thinking for more broadly.”
Communicators have long-since recognised that technology is one of the skills the new model communicator must have. Yet, what technology has also done is broaden the range of stakeholders to which the communicator is responsible. Ten years ago, a director of corporate affairs or head of communications or marketing would have been responsible for his or her own silo within the larger comms landscape – PR only handled PR, marketing only marketing, and so on – but in 2014, those lines have blurred. Comms teams within a company are finding their activities overlap more and are either pitted into fierce competition internally for time, money and influence or they are realising collaboration among themselves is a more productive means to an end. Nowhere is this change more apparent than in internal communications.
The internal comms community, a young industry in its own right, has embraced digital and the opportunities it presents. The corporate communicator has also begun to either have more responsibility over or work more with internal communications. Stephen Golding, Tullow Oil’s head of internal communications and digital, reports into the head of investor relations. Though he began his career in what he now calls a ‘pure’ corporate communications role, Tullow’s stakeholders require a more unified approach, forcing communications to change.
The London-based oil exploration firm’s employees are all shareholders, thus they have an interest in the company’s share price. Though an internal communicator, Golding also communicates traditional investor relations messages to his global audience. He’s taken that shift in stride, pointing out that working with an internal audience, even a digitally-savvy, audience with a stake in the business’ success, at least means he understands the audience intrinsically.
Though the company has focused on digital communications – particularly using video and online comms to reach far-flung employees, the basic skills and roles of the communicator are still relevant. He says, “In employee communications, you’ve got your tried and trusted methods in your intranet or using newsletters or video and face to face. It’s bigger with digital because you have to make sure that it’s suitable for everybody and easy to find.”
Whatmough says digital has fundamentally changed communications for good, “In the past, because everything was relatively clearly defined in terms of tactical execution and what is needed at those points, it was all very nicely compartmentalised and the silos were there and everyone knew where the were. The big challenge that digital has brought both internally [for agencies] and from an in-house perspective is those silos still exist but they don’t need to exist.”
Companies have begun to realise that their internal audiences are as important as their external as employee are seen as ‘brand ambassadors.’ That shift has bridged the divide between internal and external communications. James Harkness, co-founder of communications agency HarknessKennett, says, “In my view [social and digital tools] have led to a whole change in culture in terms of how we communicate. The divides in internal and external are somewhat blurred.” That goes both ways, he adds, as external campaigns are increasingly adapted for the internal audience and businesses become more open about their internal cultures and practices.
Social has had other unintended impacts internally – employees can now interact with consumers directly via social media and external messaging is readily available to employees. Harkness says, “That blurring or grey line has become a lot more blurred. That’s the big thing that we need to become cognizant of; the information is out there and is more freely shared.”
This has caused boards to reevaluate the value of strategic communications across the organisation. “Ironically, what digital and primarily social has done is it has brought what we do from a traditional communications standpoint to the attention of the c-suite in a way that hasn’t existed before,” Whatmough says. “If you can go on Twitter and see people talking about your brand, that’s an incredibly powerful way for us to demonstrate the importance of reputation and the power of an effective communications strategy.”
Fallon echoes that adding that a CCO with input at board-level is a step toward a cohesive comms strategy with reputation at its heart, “Integration into business strategy – rather than having multiple people to think about communications, you’re having one person to oversee it all. It’s more efficient, more responsive and creates a new type of culture. I think organisations now are forced to think more about the impact of their actions on the outside world. The CCO can act as a safeguard or checkpoint for this to say, ‘Are we really doing the right things? Are we treating our suppliers, our customers, our employees in the right way?’”
Wermann says these phenomena have created a broadening of stakeholder groups, making strategic integration of corporate communications into business strategies more important. “The communications director’s role has become much more strategically engaged in how you deliver the message, engage with customers and colleagues and other stakeholders and how you monitor and respond.” The speed at which communications must now take place relies on the intrinsic understanding of a business’ audiences – an understanding most communicators innately have – as well as the ability to monitor sentiment in real time.
Social media monitoring has become of the most valuable tools for the corporate communicator, but has also encouraged communications to shift into a more strategic role. Long have communicators struggled to point to the return on investment of reputation and communications. Monitoring and analytics can finally back that up with detailed data and audience insights.
Luke Moore, sales director at social analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, says, “Who the audience is, what they’re saying and why they’re saying it and who the influencers are in that audience are really important things to have a handle on.” His SVP of marketing, John Donnelly, adds, “[Leaders should] be willing to be much more open about what they’re doing at a strategic level. This goes back to the fact that social media is an important pillar of the strategy as the business is growing. If they don’t do that, they’re not going to be successful. That’s where people live and if you don’t live there too, you’re not going to be part of the conversation.”
Golding says the speed at which Tullow Oil’s leadership can see feedback from employees and investors alike has caused a more complete integration of communication and business strategy. He says feedback from across the company’s stakeholder groups is fed back into the c-suite, resulting in a more refined communications strategy.
By including communications in board or leadership level business strategy, a company can integrate feedback from its stakeholders and better promote or develop its reputation, thus resulting in a definable impact on the bottom line. Argos is a prime example, as a massive high street chain, its imminent demise was all but ordained, but it has since become a social business. Its focus on what its customers want is reflected not just in its commitment to online retail, but to those who are not digitally savvy and those who shop online and pick up in-store. The chain has actually expanded its bricks-and-mortar collection by creating digital concept stores integrating Argos’ online and offline worlds. HRG’s share price, from its basement of £69.85 in June 2012 has since rebounded exponentially, reaching its highest point since 2011 in April of this year when share price hit £220.40. That’s an undeniable ROI.
Science fiction says technology should have turned companies and communicators into myopic droids unwilling to or incapable of changing the way business works. The reality is that communications has become more adaptable, more integrated with business strategy and more cognizant of its stakeholders than ever before, largely because of technology.
The modern communicator has more to take in, understand, plan for and strategise than fiction has yet imagined. Technology is both the driver and the means by which the new model communicator will emerge, more knowledgeable, efficient and integral to business operations. The world of tomorrow is now.