Ipsos Corporate Reputation

The Life of a Modern Communicator

Corporate communicators need to demonstrate a deep commercial understanding of the business issues their organisations face – this gives them credibility around the leadership table.
They operate in fast-moving and complex environments and need to be able to learn and adapt quickly.
Building strong relationships and networks with influencers and decision-makers (both internally and externally) is essential if they are to get things done.

There is little doubt that in the last 20 years we have witnessed the evolution of corporate communications from a predominantly PR orientated function to a more strategic all-encompassing management discipline.

This is in no small part due to the rise in the concept of the corporate brand – the idea that a company and what it stands for can provide added equity to its products and services as well as helping it to build relationships with a wide range of important internal and external stakeholders.

This change has led to the convergence of corporate strategy with corporate communications as companies seek to articulate their overriding purpose in a clear and compelling way.

What are the skills required by the modern corporate communicator?

Reputation Council members are adamant that the corporate communications function (or, more broadly speaking, corporate affairs) needs to be part of the strategic planning process. In other words, effective communications strategies can only be developed when senior communicators have an in-depth understanding of the business issues their organisations face:

"IF YOU ARE DEFINING A POLICY OF A BUSINESS… YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE BUSINESS MODEL."
"BUSINESS PARTNERING... AND WITHIN BUSINESS PARTNERING I WOULD LOOK AT HAVING A DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF THE BUSINESS YOU ARE WORKING WITH."
"IN MY VIEW THE BEST ORGANISATIONS ARE INCLUDING THEIR COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTORS OR CORPORATE AFFAIRS DIRECTORS IN THE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT KEY BUSINESS DECISIONS RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING."

However, many respondents also felt strongly that broader business knowledge was not the only priority for today’s communicator. So-called ‘soft skills’ including empathy, judgement, flexibility, sincerity and enthusiasm were seen as vitally important in gaining the respect and support of colleagues and external stakeholders alike:

"FIRST OF ALL AN OPEN MIND AND CURIOSITY ARE IMPORTANT THINGS; FLEXIBILITY AND THE ABILITY TO COPE WITH A RAPIDLY CHANGING ENVIRONMENT."
"FLEXIBILITY, ADAPTABILITY, CURIOSITY AND CONFIDENCE."
"AN EAGERNESS AND HUNGER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE BIG ISSUES ARE AND ABLE TO COMMUNICATE THEM IN SIMPLE TERMS… A GOOD DEGREE OF INTELLIGENCE, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE… AN INQUISITIVE NATURE."
Ultimately it’s about being seen as a trusted advisor

There was a clear consensus amongst Council members that the ultimate goal for most communicators was to be seen by the CEO and leadership team as a trusted advisor. The reason being that when this status is achieved it provides a powerful ‘platform’ for the effective co-ordination of reputation management activities – both internally and externally:

"IN MY VIEW THE BEST ORGANISATIONS ARE INCLUDING THEIR COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTORS OR CORPORATE AFFAIRS DIRECTORS IN THE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT KEY BUSINESS DECISIONS RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING."
"THAT TRUSTED ADVISOR ROLE IS VERY IMPORTANT: IT IS IMPORTANT THAT YOU GIVE A CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS STEER TO THE BOARD, THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE AND THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE."
"YOU NEED TO HAVE AN EAR AT THE TOP TABLE. I WOULDN’T NECESSARILY SAY YOU NEED TO HAVE A SEAT AT IT, BUT YOU DEFINITELY NEED AN EAR AT THE TOP TABLE, SO A STRONG RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE, FINANCE DIRECTOR AND KEY MEMBERS OF THE C-SUITE. IDEALLY YOU WANT TO HAVE CONTROL OVER DIFFERENT LEVERS WITHIN THE REPUTATION TOOL KIT."
There’s no such thing as an average working day

Although it may well be a claim made by many functions within the corporate environment, there is no doubt that most Council members wholeheartedly believe that the average working day does not exist for them. The predominant view being that the nature of the corporate communications function within a global organisation means “that most of my days do not end up where I thought they were going to end at all.”

Council members work an average 60-hour week (not including periodic monitoring of emails over the weekend, which 88% of Council members do). This covers activity within the head office environment but also conference calls with colleagues from markets in different time zones. To varying degrees, respondents divide their time between planning activities (strategy development, meetings with communication colleagues and other functions such as HR, campaign development, etc.) and responding to internal requests as well as unexpected external events (including potentially damaging issues):

"THERE IS NO AVERAGE DAY! EVERY DAY IS DIFFERENT AND THROWS UP DIFFERENT ISSUES, THE ABILITY TO MULTITASK AND SPIN A LOT OF PLATES AT THE SAME TIME AND THAT IS DRIVEN BY THIS HYPER-CONNECTIVITY OF EVERYTHING."
"I WORK WITH A PROACTIVE AND REACTIVE ROLE. THE PROACTIVE SIDE IS WHAT I DO TO MAKE THE COMPANY APPEAR SOMEWHERE, CONVEYING A MESSAGE. THE REACTIVE PART IS WHAT I DO WHEN SOMETHING APPEARS IN THE MEDIA, A REPUTATION CRISIS. THIS IS DIFFICULT BECAUSE IT IS UNEXPECTED. YOU NEED TO ACT AT A MOMENT’S NOTICE."
"THERE IS NO AVERAGE DAY, THAT’S THE EXCITING BIT ABOUT WORKING IN COMMUNICATIONS. NO DAY IS LIKE THE NEXT. A CHALLENGE BUT ALSO EXCITING."
Single biggest frustration

In many cases the size and complexity of the organisation they work for lies at the heart of many of the frustrations cited by Council members. Specific issues mentioned include the relatively slow pace at which change can be achieved, the difficulty of gaining access to the right people and the challenges in aligning messages throughout the organisation:

"THE MOST FRUSTRATING THING IS NOT BEING ABLE TO GET HOLD OF THE PEOPLE YOU WANT TO TALK TO, WHATEVER THE REASON. THEY MIGHT BE AVOIDING YOU OR THEY ARE TOO BUSY."
"TO CREATE THE GUIDELINES AND POLICIES NEEDED TO REACH OUR LONG-TERM GOALS IS DIFFICULT. IT IS A CHALLENGE TO MAKE SURE WE STICK TO OUR VISION AND THAT EVERYBODY IN OUR ORGANISATION UNDERSTANDS THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS."
"INTERNAL BUREAUCRACY – THE LENGTH OF TIME IT TAKES TO GET THINGS DONE."

Other frustrations include lack of resources and budget relative to the deliverables expected and lack of understanding or unrealistic expectations of the communications function – “expectation that communications can solve unsolvable problems”.

Final thoughts

It’s clear Council members believe the corporate communications function has never been more important to the long-term performance and health of the organisations they work for, although it is also clear that the function is highly scrutinised for evidence of its impact on business performance.

Indeed, there are some individuals within the corporate environment who are still to be convinced that it should sit alongside other support functions such as HR and Marketing.

However, what is not in doubt is the determination of Reputation Council members to maintain the momentum that has driven communications and reputation management higher up the corporate agenda.

Methodology: 127 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between April and August 2017.

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It’s the environment, stupid!

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS ARE NO LONGER JUST PRESSING ETHICAL ISSUES, BUT QUESTIONS OF FINANCIAL PRUDENCE. OVER HALF OF BRITISH CONSUMERS FEEL WE ARE EXPERIENCING A CLIMATE CRISIS, AND OVER ONE THIRD SAY THEY WOULD SWITCH OR BOYCOTT A FINANCIAL ORGANISATION IF ITS INVESTMENTS HAVE A DETRIMENTAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT. DESPITE BIG CONCERNS AROUND COVID-19, THE ENVIRONMENT REMAINS A PRIORITY FOR THE PUBLIC, AND BUSINESSES WILL BE EXPECTED TO CONTINUE THE TRANSITION TO A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY IN THE POST-CRISIS PERIOD.

Whilst it doesn’t roll off the tongue with as much zest, James Carville’s ‘the economy, stupid’ slogan is aptly modified for Larry Fink’s announcement earlier this year that BlackRock would base future investments with environmental sustainability as a central goal… ‘It’s the environment, stupid!’. If anyone could ‘wake up’ the market to the tipping point which has now been reached around the environment, it is the Chief Executive of the world’s largest asset management firm. “Awareness is rapidly changing” wrote Mr Fink in the company’s annual letter, “and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance”. This has been compounded more recently, with the announcement that the UK’s biggest pension fund, the government-backed National Employment Savings Trust (Nest), will begin divesting from fossil fuels, and BlackRock “launching a selection of ESG multi-asset ETFs, to provide investors with a cost-efficient, transparent and sustainable way to invest”.

Data from Ipsos’s 2020 Sustainable Business Monitor survey amongst the British public echoes these sentiments. With a majority of the public now feeling we are dealing with a climate crisis, it appears that cash may no longer be king in investments. Only 21% now claim to care more about financial returns on investments than on whether the financial provider is ethical in how it invests money. This is compared to 28% of the public who prioritise ethics over financial returns and 26% who feel they should be given equal footing. Even allowing for the possibility that consumers may not be quite so ethical when faced with this trade-off in reality, it is clear that there has been a change in the drivers of investment decision making.

Returns on investment or ethical considerations?
Views on Climate Change

The growing imperative for investors to prioritise companies with a good sustainability track record is brought into sharper focus when looking more closely at the attitudes of millennials. Findings from the Ipsos Sustainable Business Monitor show that 54% of 18-34 year olds would be concerned about investments in Oil and Gas, compared to 47% for the UK public overall. This isn’t limited to the UK either; sustainable investing interest among US millennial investors jumped from 84% in 2015 to 95% in 2019, according to Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing.

Which sectors concern the public regarding investments?

So, what does this all mean? Unsurprisingly, that Fink is right.

Over one third of those asked said that investment in projects or companies that have a detrimental environmental impact would lead them to ‘switch from’, ‘stop using’, or ‘boycott’ a financial organisation. Indeed, sustainable investing is ranked alongside executive remuneration – an issue that has a long track record of being a strong driver of negative opinion for the finance sector.

Switching / Boycotting financial organisations

This sentiment is further reflected at a global level when looking at Ipsos data from the recent Earth Day 2020 report, highlighting that even when set against the crisis situation that COVID-19 has presented, concerns around the environment remain steadfast. Over 7 in 10 people around the world agree that climate change is as serious as the pandemic, whilst 65% agree that in the economic recovery from COVID-19, it’s important that government actions prioritise climate change.

Seriousness of climate change in comparison to COVID-19
Support for a 'green' economic recorvery from COVID-19

Recognising the growing commercial opportunity facing the sector, and the long-term risk of investing in environmentally unfriendly industries, Fink notes that “as a fiduciary, our responsibility is to help clients navigate this transition [the reallocation of capital]. Our investment conviction is that sustainability and climate-integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to investors”.

But where does this leave industries which have been traditionally harmful to the environment, such as the oil and gas industry, for a long time the bedrock of investment portfolios and still an essential service despite growing environmental concern?

In light of BlackRock’s position, The Economist wrote: “[t]o cynics, all the climate-friendly noises amount to little in practice, since few people are ready to make carbon-cutting sacrifices that would force oil firms’ hands. But noises are sometimes followed by action. Should they be this time, the 2020s may be do-or-die for the oil industry”.

It isn’t a case of ‘adapt tomorrow or die’ for fossil fuel companies however, and Fink makes this clear, forecasting “the energy transition will still take decades”. Citing fairness and justice, “we cannot leave behind parts of society, or entire countries in developing markets, as we pursue the path to a low-carbon world”. The demand for energy will continue whilst technology works to bring cost-effective replacements to conventional fuel sources, but it is incumbent on the sector to aggressively pursue cleaner energy; not only from an ethical perspective, but also in order to remain an attractive investment. The same is also true for a number of other sectors which have for a long time been harmful to the environment, and must adapt with the new way of sustainable investing.

Companies from within the fossil fuel and investment sectors which are leading the transition to a more sustainable future are on the right path, reinforced by public support. This should not be derailed. Communicators in these sectors therefore have the opportunity to maintain messaging around this transition, but with fairness in mind, should also remain sensitive to the societies whose energy programs are not as developed as some of the leading world economies. The transition to sustainable investing will need a collective effort – innovation from industry, reallocation of risk, government support and sustained societal scrutiny, but in adopting Fink’s position, it should be worthwhile effort for investors, producers, and consumers, from both an environmental and a financial perspective.

Contact: Alex Russell - Email | LinkedIn

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