The importance of Communications as a strategic function in your business
Communication. It’s the most ancient form of human interaction and the tool that has shaped who we are today. Yet, if we have been communicating for millions of years, how come Communications, as an imperative corporate function, still remains somewhat of a rarity in today’s business world?
Cast your mind back to 2010. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill has just happened in the Gulf of Mexico taking the lives of 11 people and leading to vast environmental repercussions and billions of dollars’ worth of damages to both the local area, its communities and BP itself. For any leader in their right mind, the first thing to do is go down to the area and evaluate the extent of the disaster and face the media. But you don’t face it unprepared, because if you do, despite you probably thinking you can’t sink any lower, when media is concerned, you certainly can.
There we are, everything is going relatively well – considering the circumstances – and then, it comes out “I’d love my life back” uttered from the very lips of the CEO of the company that just caused the disaster, right in front of the hundreds of affected locals who have literally lost everything.
Okay, so mistakes can happen. Nerves take over and things come out in a different way than they were intended. But one thing is certain: planning your communication and doing it strategically is key when it comes to your company’s reputation and everything else it does and stands for.
This is an age-old and obvious example of poor communication. But even ten years later, have business learned much from such disastrous blunders? Arguably, BP overcame the devastating oil spill and the freefall its reputation went into as a result of the infamous speech of its former CEO. It has now become one of the more trusted and respected of the oil giants. But others are still continuing to struggle, the main reason being, leadership doesn’t see Communications (or Public Relations, PR, as it’s often referred to) as a key strategic role within the company.
By definition, Corporate Communications refers to the way organizations communicate with their internal and external audiences. When it comes to business audiences, there are so many to consider, that approaches to engaging with all of them requires a combination of carefully selected strategies and tailored messages. Audiences could include anyone from your own employees, to existing and potential customers, investors, media and the general public, governments and third-party regulators – you name it, anyone and everyone is your audience!
It is, therefore, vital for Communications, as a strategic function, to be involved in decision making right from the start and for its Leads to sit with C-Suite levels of the business. The reason being – good and informed communicators know their varying and specific audiences inside out and can help shape messages and disseminate them most effectively.
Think about it, as a vaccines developer, you are not going to come out with the same message to healthcare practitioners (HCPs) working in vaccination clinics as you will to mothers who are hesitant to vaccinate their children. HCPs tend to know the importance and value of vaccination. Hesitant mothers, however, will require deeper education around the importance immunisation plays in keeping their children protected from infectious diseases and the misconception that vaccines are unsafe. All of this takes planning and needs to happen early on in the journey if it is to be clearly understood and supported across the organization and externally. Facts need to be checked, case studies and advocates need to be collated to bolster messages and increase their transparency and impact.
Generally, when people hear the term “Public Relations” or “Communications”, they think – media. Media relations is indeed a key part of the Communications function and very important in getting the word out. But it’s not just about the media and your traditional press release. With the advent of social media, stories need to be constructed and pushed out immediately and creatively if you want them to make news. You need to drive the conversation and react to anything that comes your way quickly, diligently and most importantly, in line with your overall company strategy and goals. To do this, as a communicator, you need to be close to your company’s goals and be involved in their conception.
Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, is often quoted as having said: “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” You could argue that this man knows what he’s talking about! When it comes to Communications, it’s often seen as unnecessary in taking a core role for most businesses and sadly, it’s one of the first functions to go in times of economic downturn.
Yes, Communications is not necessarily a tangible item – you don’t see direct monetary returns that can be specifically traced back to having good PR in place. It’s also difficult to measure and is often grouped together with Marketing, or only considered when things go wrong. For Communications to take up a strategic role in companies, management teams need to have a clear vision and organisational goals in place, as well as a commitment to using PR tools in an active role to help achieve these goals. The benefit of this is two-fold:
- Communications experts can help identify actions in the strategic plan likely to affect key stakeholders, and in turn prevent them from turning into a crisis.
- They can craft the company’s PR messages from the corporate plan (tailored to key, often distinct audiences), ensuring these are aligned, and are not in danger of miscommunication.
And if it ever comes to the need to manage a crisis, the PR operation should already know who the key stakeholders are and how they can be motivated to stop the bleeding and drive the conversation and action back to the organisational goals. By crafting the right messages for the right audience, a strategically focused communicator can make the best of a bad situation.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the other benefits that strategic PR function can offer.
The content you supply to the media and the result you get out of it is not paid for and in fact, it ends up being a lot more credible than if you bought an advertorial space or launched an advert.
More effective than advertising
Where advertising may allow you to be creative and dictate exactly what you want to say, PR leads to much higher credibility of your messages as it allows organic conversations to develop, that are not conducted by you. Generally speaking, people tend to trust ‘earned’ coverage a lot more than paid for and word of mouth, case studies and editorial tends to have a far greater impact than anything that you throw money at. In fact, some studies suggest that PR is up to 90% more effective than advertising in reaching key audiences.
Complements marketing initiatives
Good communicators know how to relay the company’s higher purpose by disseminating useful, informative, inspirational and engaging content, that is relevant and targeted to specific audiences, and in line with your marketing goals. Ultimately, PR helps you create a mixture of activities by building awareness and creating a positive image of your business and its brands.
Helps mitigate issues that could otherwise turn sour
Arguably, managing crises – and preventing crises – is one of the key responsibilities of PR. But for it to be effective at dealing with this, its involvement is needed across all decisions from the start. Effective PR is all about being prepared, knowing all the facts, keeping an eye on how your business or brand is talked about and making informed communications decisions to protect your image and reputation.
Increases brand visibility
In today’s online world, coverage is easily searchable and available to access at audiences’ fingertips, pretty much indefinitely. This makes it easier for your word to get out and spread via earned, owned and shared platforms which, in turn, results in higher search engine rankings and exposure. But for PR to be a true success, it shouldn’t be a one-time thing, rather you need to drive the conversation repeatedly and as often as possible in order to remain relevant and central in the mind of audiences.
Cultivates relationships and builds trust
If there’s one thing that PR does well, it’s exactly what its name says: it builds relations with publics. The strategic responsibility for communicators is to engage key stakeholders early on and drive debate in ways that circle back to the company’s strategic goals. Cultivating these relationships, both inside and outside the company, helps drive the larger conversation and nurtures deep relationships that could result in trust, loyalty and most importantly, advocacy. And in the current climate of uncertainty, there cannot be enough of that.
Consider the COVID-19 pandemic for a moment. Right before it hit, businesses were thriving, many considering expansions, growth and big launches. Then, March came, and the world shut down. Business leaders were faced with some tough decisions, many forced to change their offering and the way they get their products and services to their customers, literally overnight. The chaos that followed, resulted in confusion, worry and insecurity amongst employees and customers alike. Those businesses that put solid communications strategies in place to tackle the pandemic however, were able to retain stability through these uncertain times and it seems their reputation has flourished as a result too.
Pret a Manger started offering reduced-price food and drinks for NHS staff and Tesco and Iceland, along with other grocery stores, dedicated times in the day for the elderly and those at higher risk of infection. The Body Coach, Joe Wicks, brought daily PE lessons to the nation’s living rooms via YouTube with the aim of keeping UK’s children moving as schools closed down. Others, including beer brand, BrewDog and high fashion label, Louis Vuitton turned parts of factories into hand sanitising production lines.
Many businesses are stepping up to develop creative ways of tackling the pandemic to keep their brands in business and to also to help others. Most of these initiatives are strictly driven by PR teams and it seems like “this is really PR’s moment to shine”, as per BCW New York’s Brand Practice Lead, Karen Kearns. “There’s a specific ability we have to understand pop culture and assess the zeitgeist that is presently hitting us and ideate as we go.” This makes communicators very well-suited for this need for creativity. The other advantage that communicators have is that we are able to read and capture situations, moods and media appetites and respond to them in mere minutes – a skill that is aptly suitable in current times.
It’s difficult to know what a post-COVID-19 world might look like, but one thing is certain, the need for brands and business to be clear about what they are doing to support their people, help communities and society as a whole and to respond to situations quicker and more creatively than ever before, will stick around for a while. And arguably, Communications is the glue that will hold it all together!
This article is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.