Ipsos Corporate Reputation

EXPECTING THE UNEXPECTED: COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING IN A DISRUPTIVE ENVIRONMENT

The success of a communications strategy is in large part dependent on sound planning. Corporate communicators need to ensure that their function is fully integrated in the business. It needs to be capable of both proactively planning the year ahead whilst remaining sufficiently nimble to react to unexpected and hard-to-predict circumstances that often present communications challenges in the short term.

There are a number of components that make up the blueprint of an effective communications planning cycle.

AMONG THEM THERE ARE:

  • Timely actions to support business strategy throughout the financial year
  • Insightful inputs to maximise chances of conveying a comprehensive message
  • The involvement of appropriate internal stakeholders
  • The right balance of aligned and unified internal and external communications
  • An ability to adapt to the unexpected

In this sitting of the Reputation Council, we’ve explored what the key factors are in successful communications planning, the most important changes in how corporate communicators work and the future of the function. In addition, we touch on other hot topics of debate, including the balance between internal and external communications and the timings of the communications planning.

FIVE KEY FACTORS IN SUCCESSFUL COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING

GOOD CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING IS DESIGNED IN CLOSE COOPERATION WITH THE BUSINESS IT SERVES. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF SOURCES OF INFORMATION, BOTH INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL, THAT MEMBERS CONSIDER WHEN PLANNING:

01. BUSINESS OBJECTIVES

Business strategy and priorities for the year ahead are at the heart of communications planning. The overall organisational strategy both short and long-term (i.e. five- or ten-year strategies) shapes both the overarching and tactical comms initiatives.

“Business strategy from the management department. And financial information from the finance department.”

02. SENIOR LEADERSHIP

Top management and senior decision makers often have an active voice in shaping the communications strategy of the business. They input their views at any stage of the design and/or signing off the final version of the plan.

“First and foremost, it’s from the general manager and board leadership of that business. We don’t plan anything until we’ve sat down with them and discussed their strategic priorities for the year ahead. I very much view corporate communications as supporting that strategic roadmap rather than telling them what their strategic roadmap should be.”

03. BUDGET AVAILABLE

Financial constraints are a key factor to consider and corporate communications are often required to maximise impact with limited resources. This is an essential factor in determining the day-to-day execution of the plans.

“There’s the budget process, which is happening now. The amount of money you have to spend dictates some of the things you’re going to be doing – so budget dollars.”

04. EXTERNAL SOURCES

Specialist opinion research, brought in from third party sources to understand the perceptions and expectations of various stakeholder groups, or test the validity of specific campaigns or initiatives is also a common input. It’s objective nature makes it particularly powerful in some businesses, as it brings clarity when conflicting internal points of view.

“External analysis – strategy and insights. What is happening in the surrounding culture, what are the pressures coming at you?”

05. PEERS

It is often the case that corporate communicators discuss the challenges and opportunities facing their businesses with their networks of peers in the sector. Confidentiality certainly plays a key role here, but Council members often see this as a key way to validate current approaches and discuss fresh ideas.

“External stakeholders, inside market intelligence, customer intelligence, – several sources are integrated.”

“Business operating strategy dictates priorities; research with consumers for the business; financials (opportunities and threats); business performance.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT CHANGES IN HOW CORPORATE COMMUNICATORS WORK

The past decade has brought deep transformations to the way organisations are expected to interact with their stakeholders. From day-to-day execution to overall strategies for stakeholder engagement, here are some of the changes most commonly mentioned by Council members:

01. IMMEDIACY

The 24h news cycle requires corporate communicators to react quickly to news stories and have a point of view on critical issues with the potential to affect their organisation’s reputation.

I think the more we globalize, there will be much longer working hours. Especially in communications, the reaction is important. If something happens somewhere it needs to be dealt with. If there is an increase in overseas matters that cannot wait until the next day, I wouldn’t say we need to be in operation 24 hours but monitoring them will be tough.”

02. THE SHIFT TO DIGITAL

New communications channels, social media in particular, require corporate communicators to adapt their skillset and nurture more multi-disciplinary teams. There is also the need to coordinate the messaging across platforms and interact with stakeholders in a more direct way than in the past. Ensuring consistency and a single voice is of paramount importance.

Communication process has changed tremendously, there are fewer journalists, print has decreased in importance, development in fields of digital, social media, podcasts, videos and so on, a new audience is being addressed, the middle man (journalist) is cut out.”

03. STORY-TELLING

Standard press releases are no longer good-enough to get a company’s point across. Stakeholders increasingly expect creative story-telling for press officers to stand out from the crowd.

We’ve changed how we think about external communications. We’ve gone from ‘press release happy’ to storytelling outside of the traditional press release. We can’t just check off ‘press release’ – we need to be more creative.”

04. COLLABORATION

These days, communications teams are expected to work closely with other internal departments. Externally, the communications process has moved from ‘broadcasting’ to ‘dialogue’, with stakeholders expecting a higher degree of interaction than in the past.

There is a breakdown in silos within business and this reflects a merging of communication disciplines. It used to be that internal communications, marketing and corporate communications were really separate areas but with so much blurring of boundaries between those and that has forced a greater degree of collaborative and integrated working which then becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy because you then get more blurring of boundaries, it just keeps feeding itself as a way of working.”

Really acting like an agency; bringing the full amount of expertise within the team. You could be working on something that you don’t support directly. We try to be as collaborative as we can and bring the expertise that we have in-house to any number of initiatives that we’re working on.”

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN THE COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING PROCESS

As the role of the corporate communicator becomes increasingly complex, Council members discuss some of the obstacles they face in their jobs today. The most important are:

01. ALLOWING TIME FOR THE UNEXPECTED

Increased scrutiny of an organisation’s activities and a global remit often lead to reputational crises that need to be dealt with decisively. Time commitments vary depending on their severity, but Council members agree on the need to carve out time to cope with unexpected challenges in a volatile environment.

“It’s being in such a reactive environment. There are issues and crises that we’ve had to deal with here. We have protesters. We have environmental issues. We have animal welfare issues. These things tend to pop up relatively quickly and you have to react to them. That, unfortunately, gets in the way of some of the more proactive things that we’d like to do to talk about our reputation and show how we’re activating on purpose.”

02. DECENTRALISATION AND COORDINATION

With increasingly complex organisational structures and competing priorities, coordinating processes and messages is a common challenge that needs to be considered. Equally, balancing short and long-term priorities is frequently a difficult exercise.

“Changing priorities, short term objectives…Once we have the strategy and plans, we have to change it.”

03. LOCAL IMPLEMENTATION OF GLOBAL STRATEGIES

With Council members normally being part of leading global organisations, they often find that transposing global messaging into their local context is a delicate process that requires careful consideration to account for cultural differences.

“The biggest difficulty is aligning each global business strategy with each region. The difficulty is that what you see at headquarters is different from what you see locally, so I think it’s very difficult to get this alignment. The most common thing is the fact that we have a global team and the local team brings the raw information from the locals.”

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL COMMS

The distinction (or lack of) between internal and external communications has been a hot topic of debate in the industry for a number of years.

On the one hand, the need to tailor communications to the different needs of internal and external stakeholder groups makes the case for separate work streams. For example, employee communications require a different approach to that needed with investors. Whilst the company needs the support of both groups to succeed in the marketplace, their experience of an organisation is vastly different. It is also a ‘fact that it is easier for the company to control internal communications channels than it is to shape the message in the outside world, thus tactical adjustments are often required.’

On the other hand, there is a strong argument in favour of having a consistent approach irrespective of the remit of the communications. Both internal and external audiences expect a degree of consistency that boosts confidence in what the company stands for and what it is trying to achieve.

Leaving differing corporate structures and channels aside, Council members feel that there needs to be a communications backbone underlining the way the company presents itself to stakeholders, both internal and external.

Increasingly, we’re trying not to draw a distinction. We have an external and internal comms team but we’re trying to blur those lines.”

It is entirely consistent, so we do not draw distinctions. But how the strategy is executed may be different with external and internal audiences.”

There are certain things that have a greater lean in one area or another. But primarily we look at the story and how are we building reputation. Employees are a key driver of our reputation internally and externally. Our employees are the best potential advocates that we have. There are very few moments where we’re able to separate the two.”

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL COMMS

WHEN DO REPUTATION COUNCIL MEMBERS BEGIN AND FINALISE THEIR PLANNING?

 The diversity of Council members and the various industries in which they operate means that there are no typical approaches to timescales and deadlines, with company calendars starting and finishing at different times of the year.

Completion [of the planning] is done up to the first quarter of the following year. Why? We have a long-term planning [cycle]. So, when you look at the plan for the next year, you have to evaluate the current year and then there are a lot of things (…) that were a little bit late… because there was a lot of change, new government, changes in the law. Laws that impact our business directly and this has had a major impact on our planning. And you have to adjust it over time. That’s why the process is long. It’s not one planning session and that’s it, we can check next year. No, it’s constant, it ends up being monthly.”

THERE ARE, HOWEVER, SOME COMMON THEMES THAT ARE USEFUL TO CONSIDER:

  • It tends to be an annual process with different stages across the financial year, which means that communications adapt to the needs of the business at certain points in time.
  • The initial round of planning normally lasts for a quarter, implying that setting a forward strategy requires time to consult with various parts of the business.
  • The third and fourth quarters tend to be the periods when planning for the year ahead begins, suggesting that evidence, for example from the external market and opinion research, needs to be captured before then.
  • Council members see the communications plan as a live document, continuously up for improvement as the company navigates the year and new circumstances present themselves, meaning the job is never fully complete.

“We’re kind of in constant planning cycles. We have our one-year planning, which happens in August, September, we have three-year plans. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re doing a mix of short-, medium-, and long-term plans.”

“We have a clear sense of what we want to do by the turn of the year but after our trading update and prelims we then start to finalise it.”

WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS

Council members expect the main changes and challenges they’ve identified to evolve and even become more prominent in the near future. Whilst the essentials of communications, such as building long-term, trusted relationships with key stakeholders or considering the views and expectations of various stakeholder groups will remain a constant, the environment in which corporate communicators are expected to deliver will go through further transformation.

It’s always going to have the same principles of what is an earned story that is at the core of your strategy. That’s a timeless skill and applying those stories and choreographing them. I can’t really envision what the technology or the channels of the future might be, but the same disciplines around strategy and smart narrative are timeless.”

Some of these changes will be driven by technological innovations, such as new channels and platforms for companies to get their voices heard and compete for attention, or processes for collaboration, with remote working among global teams being a prime example.

“The approach is likely to remain the same, but the actions, channels and forms will have changed to accommodate the dynamics of communications and technology.”

Other changes will relate to stakeholders’ expectations, particularly around the need for companies to have a clear strategy in areas such as sustainability and climate change. Finally, a more insights-driven approach to communications, and the availability of vast amounts of data, has already started to have a noticeable impact in the way companies communicate.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Corporate communicators are required to have a structured yet flexible communications process to navigate a complex and crowded environment. The initial planning phase is mostly useful to set the overall strategy for the year, but it inevitably needs to be adapted as circumstances and expectations evolve at an increasingly fast pace. Currently, there are already multiple inputs to consider, both internal and external. The successful corporate communicator is able to blend them all into a cohesive narrative that will support the organisation in achieving its goals.

With these trends set to develop further in the next five years, communicators need to make the case for the value of increased investment in multi-disciplinary teams and comprehensive skillsets, to ensure corporate communications continue to support and add value to the business.

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, the S of ESG is coming under greater scrutiny

Actions on E, S and G in tandem remain essential to corporate reputation

As ESG has surged up the consumer agenda, new Ipsos data shows that improving society is identified as the top priority for multinationals among consumers across the globe – perhaps not surprising given the social implications of the pandemic. While fundamental issues such as safe working conditions are seen as most important here, each company should carefully consider how to adapt its operations to improve sustainable business practice. Companies should continue to pursue actions on all three pillars of ESG though. Not just because E and G remain critical in the public’s eyes, but also as it – as we should all know now – makes good business sense to do so.

Companies’ role in creating shared value

Companies are increasingly assessed on the extent to which they bring ‘net benefits’ to society. Especially among the financial community and the media there is a focus on ESG: companies’ performance on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues that come with doing business. Not just because you ultimately shoot yourself in the foot if you run out of the natural resources you need, treat your staff unfairly, or become wound up in corruption scandals. No, also because doing the right thing has BECOME a source of value creation. Not least, this is because we – ‘the public’, consumers and employees – pay more attention to what companies do or stand for than we did a decade ago – be that their efforts to increase staff diversity & inclusion, meeting net zero goals, or paying their fair share of taxes.

In March 2021 Ipsos asked consumers across 28 markets to rank ESG priorities for multinationals. While all three aspects, ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘G’, were seen as important, improving society (S) came out as the top priority, with 41% of the votes globally. Protecting the environment (E) followed at 31%, almost on equal footing with practicing good governance (G, 28%).

In 22 out of the 28 countries surveyed, improving society received the most picks as the top priority, with a majority of the vote share in Spain (54%), Poland (52%), Japan (52%) and Korea (50%).

These findings are not surprising in the context of COVID-19. Health & safety precautions in the workplace, as well as a desire for job security amid economic uncertainty, have, for many, become necessary concerns.

How should companies engage with the ‘S’?

Given the increased focus on the role of companies to contribute socially, where should they focus their efforts on the ‘S’ pillar of ESG?

Looking at which societal issues people want multinationals to address, our survey shows that improving working conditions and worker health & safety come top. This is true across all regions, from Europe to APAC, to Middle East-Africa, to LATAM through to North America. Potentially contributing here are new COVID-related concerns about ventilation, social distancing, face masks at work etc., on top of existing issues.   

Despite ample attention across (social) media for issues around gender equality and diversity, these topics came out lower down the list. Again, this holds true when looking in detail at the answers from people across different parts of the world. 

It’s impossible to give a blank slate answer to how companies can best create shared value on ‘S’. The priorities in the eyes of consumers listed above, give an idea. But what that means for each individual business is something that needs careful consideration. That’s why it’s so important for companies to engage with their stakeholders on these issues. Employees who feel their employer looks after them, will be more willing to go the extra mile: a ‘give’ for the ‘get’. Local communities who see that companies take their interests at heart, will be more open to dialogue and working together to create mutual benefits. Etcetera.

Ipsos advises businesses on how they should address ESG challenges and helps them to define, manage and communicate their priorities. A relevant example to multinationals is our advice on how to frame “benefits” of ESG strategies to consumers. As people aren’t driven by sustainability claims alone to take action (as they often feel they are doing enough already), it is most effective to couple these to an extra incentive personal to them. So instead of saying: “switch to renewable energy to reduce your carbon footprint” position this as “switch to renewable energy will save you money AND help you reduce your footprint”.

Finally, what’s left to say is that, as I have said before, investments in ESG issues should be financially responsible and prudent in their own right, giving shareholders a return on investment. Ultimately, genuine progress on ESG will help to protect companies’ social licence to operate and bolster their reputation.

For more information please contact:

Marloes Klop
Research Director, Corporate Reputation

Marloes.Klop@ipsos.com

Technical details about the survey

These are the results of a 28-market online survey conducted by Ipsos on its Global Advisor platform. Ipsos interviewed a total of 14,000 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey, and 16-74 in 23 other markets. The survey was fielded between 19 February and 5 March 2021.

The sample consists of approximately 500 individuals in each of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland), Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the US.

The samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the US can be taken as representative of their general adult population under the age of 75.

The samples in Brazil, Chile, mainland China, Colombia, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these markets should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population.

The data is weighted so that each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data.

Where results do not sum to 100 or the ‘difference’ appears to be +/-1 more/less than the actual, this may be due to rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don’t know” or not stated responses.

The precision of Ipsos online polls are calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 500 accurate to +/- 4.8 percentage points. For more information on the Ipsos use of credibility intervals, please visit the Ipsos website.

The tech sector always bets that product quality will override privacy concerns

Probably the most common criticism levelled at the tech sector is the one about privacy – the sense that the tech sector, or government enabled by the tech sector, are collecting far more data on individuals than they should, and that the data is then being sold or used for unclear purposes. While the tech sector sticks closely to its cherished, and well-proven, ideology that positive user experience nearly always mitigates these concerns in practice, it is also true that the concerns of pro-privacy groups within society, and government, are getting louder and more prominent.

Stark evidence of this can be seen across two, relatively recent, product launches. Both of which have attracted major criticisms from privacy and digital rights campaigners, while at the same time being major commercial success stories.

Concerns around business and government use of personal information is high on a global scale

Let’s look at those concerns first – the 2020 Ipsos Global Trends survey[1] shows in stark detail the level of concern that exists around the world about what is being done by companies and governments using the personal data being collected from people when they go online.

A rise in private sector surveillance

So, bearing such concerns in mind, let’s examine the news coverage of Amazon’s Ring product line over the last few weeks. Ring is a video doorbell system, which seems innocuous, but with millions sold what you end up with is a potential surveillance network the size of which has never been seen before, and all in the hands of Amazon. And what has Amazon done with it? For one it initially entered into partnership with a large number of law enforcement agencies in the US that allowed them access to the videos it records without a warrant being required[2]. To quote from the Guardian, because of Ring “law enforcement are given a backdoor entry into private video recordings of people in residential and public space that would otherwise be protected under the fourth amendment”. While Amazon has recently extended its moratorium on sharing its facial recognition software with police, a ban it says that will stay in place until Congress creates the appropriate safeguards, it is puzzling why a similar approach to sharing data with law enforcement has not been adopted with Ring. Especially given the high-profile critique of the product by former Amazon software engineer Max Eliaser;

“The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back[3]

Now Amazon can certainly say that they are following the law as it exists and that the capabilities and requirements of the Ring product are all made available to the consumer at the point of sale. Amazon has acknowledged some of this controversy and has consequentially changed how police ask for video content, now requiring the police to ask for footage via the Ring Neighbors app, allowing local users to comment or assist as they judge best[4]. However, to a background of high consumer concern about how personal data is being used and with Ring cameras being described as “a threat to privacy at best and a danger to society and democracy at worst[5]”, critics may accuse Amazon of not thinking product features through a bit more carefully. That said, when they have a product that has shifted many millions of units in the US alone it is clear that, as ever, product utility quashes privacy concerns at point of purchase. A fact underlined by the 4.6 rating the Ring 3 has on Amazon.com, a rating based on 33,000+ reviews.

From surveillance to tracking

Enough with Amazon, I hear the tech fans cry, that’s just one of the major brands. Well, let's turn to Apple and its brand-new gadget - the AirTag. A device sold as the means to find things you have lost, via a Bluetooth signal that alerts sympathetic devices that are web-enabled. Perfect for finding your luggage, your car, or, as has been pointed out by a wide range of news agencies, the person you are stalking.

Apple has attempted to build in safeguards to prevent “unwanted tracking” but the slew of media coverage over the last few weeks that point out how ineffective those safeguards are in practice probably shows how little thought the designers of this product put into thinking about the downsides of this product compared to the potential upsides. The warning sound that alerts the user to unwanted tracking is easily missed, and while people with an iPhone might be able to find unwanted AirTags those with Android phones cannot (right now).

While plenty of apps, charmingly called “stalkerware”, exist to help one person track another, and there are other products similar to AirTags where the manufacturers have put far less effort into stopping them from being used for nefarious purposes than Apple has. However, part of the surprise here is that, as The Washington Post articulates well “AirTags show how even Apple, a company known for emphasizing security and privacy, can struggle to understand all the risks involved in creating tech that puts everyday things online[6]. This disconnect between a company that is often praised for its firm stance on personal privacy and the potential misuse of this product is vast and easily fixed with little effort. As Wired suggests “Apple leadership needs to give abuse survivors and experts a central place in its development process, incorporating their feedback from the start. Otherwise, the company will continue to make products that endanger people more than they help[7]”.

Responding to this wave of criticism[8] Apple has announced some changes – reducing the amount of time before an AirTag starts beeping once it is away from its owner's iPhone and promising an Android application as well. Just like Amazon with Ring its good to see Apple responding to the issue, but it again raises the question of how a product like this got to market with these issues when Apple usually takes these issues so seriously. That said, just as with Amazon’s Ring it is highly likely that this product will sell incredibly well despite any privacy concerns due to its sheer usefulness. In fact one industry analyst in Forbes[9] confidently predicts its success, and possible billion dollar revenue for Apple, due to the vast number of devices the product can connect to and the popularity of the Find My app among Apple product users.

Consumers value privacy – as well as products that make their lives easier

Ultimately the tech sector knows its customers very, very well and knows that while there are people who may not buy these products because of privacy issues there are far more people who will ignore those concerns and buy them anyway. Negative media coverage of the like described above will have very little impact on the level of individual customers. That said, increased media focus on perceived privacy issues reinforces some of the negative reputational themes that affect the tech sector and the brands within it and are currently fuelling many of the debates that are ongoing around the world among legislators thinking of new regulation. Innovative new products that skirt the edge of what is appropriate, or legal, when it comes to privacy is one thing, as long as they are profitable, but fuelling the fires of regulation is another. The tech sector may want to ponder this.

Article links

[1] Markets: Argentina, Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. 

Method The survey for the 2020 edition was carried out online using the Ipsos Online Panel, and face to-face interviewing in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. The results are weighted to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to the most recent country census data. Total global data has not been weighted by population size, but are simply a country average.

Fieldwork dates June-July 2019

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/18/amazon-ring-largest-civilian-surveillance-network-us

[3] https://amazonemployees4climatejustice.medium.com/amazon-employees-share-our-views-on-company-business-f5abcdea849

[4] https://www.cnet.com/home/security/rings-police-problem-didnt-go-away-it-just-got-more-transparent/

[5] https://thenextweb.com/news/amazon-engineer-ring-should-be-shut-down-immediately-and-not-brought-back

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/05/05/apple-airtags-stalking/

[7] https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-apples-air-tags-are-a-gift-to-stalkers/

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-57351554

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/timbajarin/2021/04/20/airtags-are-apples-next-billion-dollar-business/?sh=4f60c605d187

For more information please contact:

Carl Phillips
Director & Global Stakeholder Research Lead, Corporate Reputation

Carl.Phillips@ipsos.com