The growing importance of social media had an immediate impact on consumer public relations, where companies sought to seize a new opportunity to connect with their customers. Corporate communicators—as is their wont—responded in a more conservative manner, perhaps more concerned about defending their reputations against social media critics than in using new channels to play offense.
But 2014 is shaping up to be the year in which savvy and sophisticated corporate communicators come to understand that digital and social media provide them with an opportunity to tell their corporate stories more proactively, to realize competitive advantage by walking the walk rather than just talking the talk.
1. Actions speak louder…
“A growing trend over recent years that will hopefully accelerate in 2014 is that of corporate communications supporting not only ‘downstream’ engagement—once business decisions have been taken—but rather informing those decisions in the first place and the actions that stem from them,” says Rod Cartwright, who leads the global corporate practice at Ketchum. “We view the communications function and our role as counselors as helping leaders at all levels to ‘decide, act and engage.’”
2. The perspective in similar in emerging markets.
“Walking the talk will be an even more important factor on the corporate arena,” says Ciro Dias Reis, CEO of Brazilian agency Imagem Corporativa. “That means companies really acting as their speeches suggest.”
Hill+Knowlton Strategies defines the convergence of words and deeds in terms of “communicating character.” According to US president and CEO Andy Weitz: “We define character as the intersection—and ultimately, the alignment—of a company’s brand, reputation and behavior.
“Communicating character means breaking down the barriers between the teams that manage a company’s brand, its behavior and the public’s perceptions of it. We see successful companies treating the organization’s array of reputational priorities as reflections of its actions, values and how it’s perceived, not as undertakings by an isolated group within the firm.”
But the focus on behavior means that corporate reputation must become everybody’s job.
“The thinking will become more focused on how to embed reputation management deeply within businesses and business processes to grow enterprise value, categories and brands,” says Fraser Hardie, chief executive of UK firm Blue Rubicon. “Reputation management functions will have to respond to that challenge through organisation re-design and re-skilling. There will be more emphasis on strategy, planning and the analytics to deliver genuinely decision-ready date to boards.”
That will create new opportunities for agencies, Hardie believes. “On the consultancy side, a few firms will emerge from the pack. These firms will lead the reputation space by offering a higher level of reputation management advice, sitting in the space between management consultants and traditional PR agencies.”
3. Corporate communications for consumers
“We are seeing a rapid rise in demand for what I would call corporate-to-consumer communications from marketing,” says Stuart Smith, CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations’ EMEA operations. “Corporate communications departments will increasingly need to embrace consumer communications as a core specialism more directly—and/or partner more closely with marketing.”
The lines between corporate and consumer communications have been blurring for some time—particularly in areas such as corporate social responsibility—but there are now indications that corporate communicators are learning from their counterparts in marketing, particularly when it comes to a campaign-driven approach.
Says Smith, “Corporate PR departments—and the agencies that serve them—are traditionally set up to deal with communicating on a large range of complex issues to a small range of highly influential stakeholders and generally not to communicate at scale with consumers about a creative platform idea in a compelling and entertaining way.
“So in terms of what we will see next it is all encapsulated in my view which is this is a fabulous opportunity for corporate communications to step out of the shadows and step up to a bigger and truly exciting challenge.”
4. Communicating leadership
“The critical role of communication in underpinning high-quality leadership will remain firmly in the spotlight during 2014,” says Cartwright. He points out that the World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 included “a lack of values in leadership” in its top 10 trends for the coming year, “with credible, effective leadership implicit in pretty much all of the other nine.”
Ketchum’s own Leadership Communication Monitor, meanwhile, found that open communication was the single most important attribute of effective leaders for the second year in a row – with a 29 point gap between expectation and delivery. Says Cartwright, “It is clear that the inherent link between leadership and communication represents a major opportunity and responsibility for our industry and the communications function.”
5. Corporate content
“Communicators will increasingly become technologists,” says Jen Prosek or US corporate firm Prosek Partners. “Communicators will need to understand social platforms (old news), amplification techniques, measurement systems, and online reputation management including Google’s algorithms and SEO.”
But the biggest aspect of this emphasis on technology, is that “content marketing will go global,” she says. “Content marketing will continue to grow and evolve with more effort paid to global efforts.” She quotes a recent Mashable article predicting that we will see “exponentially more European companies and agencies tapping into content marketing technologies and solutions."
Dias Reis of Brazil’s Imagem Corporativa is more specific: “Successful examples such as the series of videos ‘Staying Together’ from Skype, show how reliable content created and released on social media by companies themselves, using not only logical arguments but emotion as well, can be. But, here again, good contents more identified as pure ‘marketing’ can be a bad option. Walking the talk is essential.”
Inevitably, there is still a focus on measuring the impact of all this work—with digital and social tools providing new tools for evaluation.
“There's a chance someone will ‘crack’ measurement,” says Prosek. “We have finally moved beyond the impression. Again technology is giving us more sophisticated ways to measure ‘return on engagement’ or ‘cost per action.” It’s not perfected yet, but communicators are obsessed.”
“Smart companies will devote a portion of their resources to tuning into and addressing internal and external feedback on the company’s reputation,” says Weitz. “It won’t be enough to have people to manage the brand, operations and communications. Monitoring the alignment of these three areas, and course-correcting when any of the three fall out of alignment will be key to keeping companies healthy in 2014.”
In-house view: The authenticity imperative
Tom Buckmaster, chief communications officer, Honeywell
“Call it the “authenticity imperative”: the expectation that organizations and individuals perform in a matter consistent with who they claim to be or say they are. Big data and seamless speedy search makes misalignment all the easier to spot. Know who you are, embrace it or change it as you choose, and take comfort that integrity is a powerful ally.”