The blurring of the line between consumer branding and corporate reputation, the importance of leadership from the very top of the organization, and the need to engage via digital and social media are among the key challenges facing corporate communicators in the year ahead.
1. Starting at the top: One important lesson of recent years is that a great corporate reputation depends of corporate behavior, not corporate communication. And the way a corporation behaves is almost always a reflection of its CEO’s character (and the way he or she communicates that character within the organization).
Rod Cartwright, partner and director of the global corporate practice at Ketchum, cites his firm’s leadership communications monitor research, which found a global crisis of leadership and also presented a blueprint for leaders concerned about restoring credibility.
“I continue to believe that in these enduringly challenging times, effective leadership and leadership communication will continue to be a major focus and imperative,” says. “In particular, the continued trend towards fully engaged leadership that is social, collaborative, participative and partnership-focused—rather than the slightly muscular, one-way leadership of the past—will only accelerate.
“As a fundamental element of effective leadership, the expectation on leaders to align their words and deeds—avoiding the ‘say-do’ gaps that be so corrosive to personal, corporate and brand reputation—will grow ever more critical, as big data and real time social scrutiny intensify the spotlight on leaders at every level of the organization.”
2. The convergence of communications functions: The past few years have seen an increasing convergence of communications functions. In areas such as corporate social responsibility, it is no longer clear where consumer marketing ends and corporate reputation building begins. The traditional dividing line between corporate reputation and public affairs is similarly blurry: companies are coming to realize that they can’t hope to influence public policy if they have not previously done a good job of establishing public trust.
And the final frontier in the corporate communications function—the autonomy of the IR function, which has sometimes valued the comfort of its relationship with the CFO more than the obvious benefits of coordination with other communications disciplines—may be breaking down. “Company investor relations and corporate communications departments will also come closer together,” says Neil Hedges, a consultant with London-based corporate and financial specialist Headland. “They will become equal partners, reflecting the recognition that all stakeholders are equally important.”
3. Make a connection: A recent study by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that consumers are more likely to defend a brand with which they have a personal connection, even amidst scandal.
“Engagement is key to brand loyalty and to building and sustaining market share, awareness and reputation,” says Rachel Spielman, executive vice president of the corporate and public trust practice at Ruder Finn. “In a world where people can customize where, how, and what they read and consume, we need to create more targeted and customized content for different stakeholders.”
That content need to be placed in the context of corporate storytelling, Spielman says. “In communications, it is our responsibility to maximize these investments in innovation by making storytelling an integral part of execution,” she adds. “With a more fragmented media environment, we need to do even more as strategic communications counselors help our clients bring to life the value they bring to customers—it’s still about the story.”
4. Embrace digital and social media for corporate reputation building: Much of the early excitement about digital and social media focused on its ability to help marketers drive sales. But companies are coming to realize that engaging with a wide range of stakeholders—employees, shareholders, opinion leaders and others—can help sustain a positive corporate reputation.
Neil Hedges says one way in which corporate leaders will rise to the challenge is by engaging more actively in social media. “The new generation of chairmen and CEOs will recognise that social media illiteracy is no longer acceptably quaint,” he predicts. “A real challenge for senior management will be to apportion the right amount of productive time to social media activity.”
5. The supply chain: Companies like Apple have already discovered that problems with suppliers—from labor practices to health and safety issues—resonate with consumers. “Companies are under more scrutiny than ever before on all aspects of supply chain from environment to human rights,” says Geoff Beattie, who heads Cohn & Wolfe’s global corporate practice from the firm’s London office. “Recent cases have shown that even the biggest brands can be vulnerable on these issues.”
In-House view: "Be more glocal..."
Tom Buckmaster, vice president of corporate communications at Honeywell
“One trend that will continue to influence both the agency and the commercial sector is the pace and demands of globalization. It is essential to deliver consistently and efficiently across time zones and markets, projecting a consistent brand while being relevant to local customers and the challenges they face close to home. For our craft, that means more focus on improving the quality of our strategies and their deployment in emerging markets while being ever more mindful of connecting with customers and employees on terms that are respectful of their unique cultures and heritage. In a word, be more ‘glocal.’”