Earlier this year, the Arthur W. Page Society—an organization of senior U.S. public relations and corporate communications professionals—produced a white paper (available at www.awpagesociety.com) entitled The Authentic Enterprise in which it argued that “leaders of 21st century enterprises face a rapidly changing context for global business and society” and proposed “a set of strategic options for CEOs and other ‘C-suite’ executives to consider in helping the enterprise successfully respond to the new realities.”
In this article, Dave Senay, chief executive of international public relations agency Fleishman-Hillard, considers what the report means for public relations consultants.
Arthur W. Page Society’s “The Authentic Enterprise” white paper and the CEO survey on which it is based represent a major effort to determine the implications of the rapidly changing environment in which corporate communications—indeed, all public relations—is practiced. The white paper identified three factors on which it makes the case for new priorities and skills for chief communications officers at large corporations: the emergence of a new digital information commons; the appearance and empowerment of myriad new stakeholders; and the reality of a global economy.
The paper also points out that some of the fundamental principles of communications must be reconsidered in our changing world. Specifically, we are losing control of messaging; we are losing our ability to segment communications targeted at specific audiences; and we are losing our claim of mastery in the management of communications across diverse channels of communications.
If these are the global forces at play, then how can agencies help corporate clients adjust and thrive in the new environment?
The Global Imperative
Roughly 70 percent of our major clients today are asking Fleishman-Hillard to help them on more than one continent. That’s up dramatically from only three years ago. The long-awaited promise of global branding has arrived, as more and more companies enter the arena once reserved for a relatively few corporate icons. Being global in some aspect—through supply chain, manufacturing, distribution, or marketing—will become the rule, not the exception.
This development has put great pressure on agencies that aspire to have global networks to truly work together, maintain a consistent quality of service that engenders trust in any region, and respond instantaneously to any need.
Agencies with these aspirations are racing to attract globally savvy talent, and then blend it into a cohesive working unit. That requires great investment in training and travel, and other methods to create a unified global culture of client service with common platforms and language. With the right network in place, global agencies (or those affiliated with truly unified independent networks) can be of valuable assistance in strengthening a company’s global effectiveness.
To elaborate: agency networks have hundreds of communications professionals in dozens of markets around the world. They “touch” many of the moving pieces (stakeholders, communications technology, social trends, local laws and regulations, cultural nuances, local politics, media outlets, influentials, etc.) They have interactions with bloggers, journalists, activists, academics, pundits, analysts, local community leaders, and politicians in many countries.
Many of us are making vast investments in acquiring digital capabilities, and in combination with our tech practices and work with clients, we are exposed to the cutting edge of the new media and technology developments. Also, many agencies are owned by holding companies, prompting increasing integration with advertising agencies, polling groups, public affairs shops, branding agencies, management consultancies (yes!) and other related firms with expertise that complements our own. And we see and learn from them about the ways they are changing to keep up with the times.
It is a traditional selling point of large agencies that we have a vast network that can bring information and expertise to our clients. In the Information Age, the value of communications networks (or any network, per Metcalfe’s law) increases geometrically as new members are added—provided, of course, each node of the network is active and contributes.
This same dynamic applies to public relations agencies. In a global marketplace, an agency’s ability to impart deep knowledge and insight is critical to corporations that seek to manage their businesses, brands, and reputations in a way that takes the world’s complexity into account.
Our greatest challenge, then, is to quickly mobilize, analyze, and deliver the collective knowledge of our employees with surgical precision for our clients. We have just begun, I suspect, to tap the full panorama of opportunities in this area. One hundred percent knowledge capture and application may never fully be reached … but we must chase it nonetheless and close the gap. As agency heads, we must be more ambitious and aggressive in our attempt to harvest the value our networks can deliver.
This will probably mean that over time, there will be less emphasis on our ability to churn out press releases or manage special events and more effort made to assemble groups within our networks to understand trends, by region and by audience, so we can arm our clients with much more comprehensive and sophisticated assessment of the external environment, and help them determine the sequence of moves that win the game.
Agency leaders need to examine if their agency’s very structure impedes serving clients in this way. Geographic profit centers must be overcome with horizontal mechanisms that put the client at the center. The creation of “client relationship managers” whose sole responsibility it is to bring the best of the agency to the client, irrespective of geography, is one such approach. Incentive schemes need to be examined as well; people tend to behave the way they are incentivized. How can we surrender the organization to the client, while successfully running our business?
Myriad Empowered Stakeholders
Hand-in-hand with the global imperative is the ability to map the intricate web of influentials who matter to our client organizations. As implied, no two stakeholder ecosystems are alike, and they are ever-changing. How do we help identify the most important intersections of causes and relationships, and do so at just the right time?
Beyond the required intimate knowledge of the motivations and history of key influential groups, agencies must constantly innovate in the “tools” area to bring new, powerful ways to clients for the management of these relationships. More than simply managing or being diagnostic, agencies bear an obligation now to become predictive of the next wave of behaviors. The early footprints of the next wave are often already present in the here and now; how can we read the signs better for our clients? How can we anticipate the “knock-on” effect of any one action?
Perhaps the most dramatic development of the social media era is the rise of tracking tools that allow us to be present at the virtual moment a belief is created. Being able to deconstruct these chains of influence can give us powerful insights.
There is one area, too, in which corporate and agency personnel need to make finer distinctions … in spite of the CEO feedback in the white paper.
Message control is not dead. Audience segmentation, likewise, is only going to grow in importance. True, we have less message control, but that does not mean we have no control. It’s equally true that audiences speak with one another more often, but we dare not treat them the same.
Let’s take these issues together for the sake of discussion. It is incumbent upon communicators to impress upon their organizations that behavior is the single biggest driver of messages, and we can, indeed, control our behaviors. As the old saying goes: one cannot communicate one's self out of something one has behaved one's self into. (This is the basis for a potent argument to be strongest “inside,” and not simply communicate actions, but help shape them, even at the tactical level, and even in the face of management who think there is no role for strategic input at the tactical level. There are times when the single most heroic thing we can do as communicators is to throw ourselves in front of a train on the wrong track.)
Likewise, our audiences continue to have special needs, and ignoring them puts our organizations in peril. The pressure here is to harmonize our messages and our behaviors with the needs of our audiences, so there is a consistency of purpose that makes sense, regardless of the angle from which you view the organization.
That may be the very definition of “authenticity.” Without such a strident, agenda-taking attitude, we risk standing idly by as events threaten to dull the edge of corporate communications, erode the value of the services agencies can provide to clients, and jeopardize the value in-house communicators deliver to their organizations.
There’s no arguing with the need for consistent messaging. At the highest corporate level, of course we want shareholders, employees, and customers to understand and embrace a few powerful ideas about a company. But at the coal face, where each audience spends the vast majority of their time thinking about their own interests, agencies and corporate communicators alike must find the harmonious chord that speaks to authenticity while respecting diversity of needs.
Outside Views Can Help Governance
In support of this notion, the white paper calls for CCOs to create a “highly coordinated approach across marketing, human resources, legal, finance, and other corporate functions, as well as line management.” This is a superb suggestion and one that is already being adopted by enlightened, pioneering companies. Such developments take on many shapes and labels, but in the end they are all about “governance,” as in “behavioral governance.”
Few more powerful ideas are at the communicators’ disposal today, from my perspective. Still, these groups tend to operate in a relatively closed environment; the outside perspective is what an agency can bring to this party … from other industries, regions, and regulatory environments.
To shape communications that are most beneficial across all audiences, corporations must have a reasonably accurate “living sense”—a kind of dynamic communications telepathy—of a constellation of stakeholders and their perspectives in order to craft the most effective messages. Making the work even more complicated is the fact that external audiences are growing in number while frequently changing attitudes and positions in response to external events.
For example, let’s look at the policy debate around global warming and steps proposed to address the problem. Washington’s position is different from Brussels’, which is different from Beijing’s and Moscow’s. Newspapers in Australia (which is in the midst of a drought) are likely to report on water issues with a directness you won’t find in the Peoples Daily. The views on ethanol as a possible solution to fuel shortages and pollution are going to be quite different in Brazil (where ethanol makes up 30 percent of the nation’s car fuel) than they are in Saudi Arabia (where petroleum makes up 90 percent of all exports).
The differences are endless, and often more subtle. The point is that as large corporations attempt to communicate major policy, operational and investment decisions that reflect their response to any single issue, their actions are going to be interpreted in vastly different ways by an array of stakeholder audiences around the world. Again, agencies need to assist their corporate clients in giving them an accurate “read” on all consequences of an action, including unintended consequences.
Priorities for CCOs, Agencies Too
The Society’s white paper concludes with four new priorities and skills for which the Chief Communications Officer must now assume a leadership role: 1) Defining and instilling company values; 2) Building and managing
multistakeholder relationships; 3) Enabling the enterprise with “new media” skills and tools; and 4) Building and managing trust, in all its dimensions.
Asking CCOs to lead the enabling of their organizations with “new media” skills and tools requires that the CCOs themselves be highly informed and facile in the digital arena. (A hot issue at journalism schools today is that students find themselves ahead of their instructors in the understanding of social media and its various accoutrements. We need to stay ahead of our “students.”) Yet as we all know, new media tools and techniques are evolving at a dizzying pace around the world. And “best practices” are as likely to be found in Seoul or Singapore as in New York or San Francisco.
Moreover, different subgroups within the population, especially young people, are likely to be more adept and inventive than the average adult consumer in many markets. Most corporations are challenged just to keep up with mainstream trends in the digital world and simply don’t have the bandwidth to monitor subgroups, especially on a worldwide basis.
Here again, agencies can be of help. We (should!) have more connections with emerging digital technologies and the diverse audiences who use them than do most corporations. The economics make sense for agencies to invest in emerging methods and then amortize those investments across a wide array of clients. We have hundreds of communications practitioners who can assess new technology usage in every major market and determine its relevancy for clients; or we can step back to examine key trends. We are in position to continually bundle our observations, insights and updates and provide them to our CCO counterparts to let them effectively play the role called for in the White Paper. The question really is: do we? And if not, why not?
Trust in All Dimensions
Finally, the white paper calls on CCOs to lead their companies in the “building of trust in all dimensions.” As with the second recommendation (multistakeholder relationships), for global corporations this presupposes a knowledge, insight and empathy for dozens or even hundreds of different stakeholder groups around the world. It requires a more comprehensive understanding of regional dynamics than at any time in the past. If CCOs follow the white paper’s recommendations, they will be more engaged than ever with key executives, functions, and business units inside their organizations.
With their attention and energies turned inward, who will help them remain current on the developments outside the company headquarters on which many of their recommendations will be based?
I think agencies can step up to this role as never before. To do this, we must work on earning levels of client trust, elevating our consulting capabilities, adopting or integrating skills from other professional services, requiring our people to develop greater analytical and strategic thinking skills, and, above all, managing our networks to continually deliver intelligence, updates, and insight. If we do all this, we can become partners who bring complementary capabilities, information, and insights to those CCOs attempting to evolve their corporations into “authentic enterprises.”
Perhaps the most sweeping challenge made by the white paper reads: “The future of this profession—and the challenge that will define the emerging role of the chief communications executive—is to guide the corporation in influencing and transforming not just perceptions but the company’s behaviors, as well as the self-conceptions and actions of those external constituencies themselves.” This raises the bar high for what corporate communications is asked to achieve – not only influencing ingrained behaviors within the company but also of a large, diverse population in markets around the world.
Mastering this role, over and over again, will be difficult for the corporation alone. As agency leaders, we have the opportunity of a lifetime to help our clients and to make a difference. It’s an era that rewards innovation and initiative and commands adaptation. For agencies, it’s time to adapt, or wither into irrelevance.
Dave Senay is president and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard International, one of the world’s largest public relations agencies. He has spent 23 years with the firm, taking on increasingly broader responsibilities, serving at various times as a group leader and then as general manager of the firm's St. Louis headquarters office; and as regional president for the Midwest, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, and Africa.