Years ago, the role of communications—or PR—was more easily defined. Communications professionals served as storytellers and relationship-keepers with an established media community. They were called upon to deliver a narrative and mitigate negative publicity. If you had a robust rolodex filled with trusted journalists, you could deliver value to your clients. That paradigm has shifted. Companies are less dependent on gatekeepers or even a definable media establishment. Management has the ability to create direct lines of contact with its strategic constituencies, and therefore the old model has given way to specialized advisory services where communications professionals help companies shape—rather than deliver—content across multiple channels.
And yet, despite widespread acceptance of the change in the media landscape, communications is still often viewed through an outdated lens—one focused on spin, or manipulation. But truly strategic communications is something different altogether—it’s about enhancing the credibility and reputation of executives and the businesses they operate. It’s about utilizing the new tools that companies have at their disposal in a thoughtful and authentic manner. It’s about ensuring content from management meets high standards of credibility, and that management is seen to have a trusted voice. It’s about your communications advisors truly having a seat at the strategy table.
Why? For the same reasons that companies look to outside strategy consultants, lawyers and financial professionals. All companies can perform these functions ably—but an outside, independent view is critical in times of change or opportunity. This has always been the case across many professional services, and now more than ever, it is the case in the communications industry. Companies need outside communications advisors who have a hand in shaping—not “spinning”—content that will be delivered to their stakeholders.
What does that look like? What does it mean to truly give your communications team a seat at the table? I counsel my clients to follow a few key rules. These do not guarantee success, but they can help you prepare for what CEOs and their advisors need the most: appropriate responses to the unexpected.
Establish and maintain credibility. In our current age of “fake news,” the worst thing you can do when devising a communications strategy is to be untruthful or even skate on the edge of it. Nothing makes me crazier than the old stereotype of the communications “spin doctor.” The democratization of communications has made corporate-speak and spin all the more dangerous. You’re not trying to deceive one or two media gatekeepers—you’re now speaking to millions of people who, via social and digital media, have their own publishing platforms. Lie—or even come close to it—and you will be found out. I guarantee it.
Map your stakeholder universe. This is where going beyond the traditional notion of PR is critical. Effective media relations simply are not enough. If you are trying to execute a transformative merger or acquisition, ask yourself—who is going to care? It’s not just the Financial Times, and it’s not just your core investors. Are there consumer advocacy groups that are likely to raise pricing concerns? Are there activist investors that may try to turn this moment of change to their advantage? Are there policymakers in affected districts that will campaign against job loss? Are there employees, vendors and partners who need to understand why you’ve decided on a different strategic direction? These are questions that your traditional legal and financial advisors may struggle to fully grasp—but that a strategic communications partner can help you prepare for and, in some cases, mitigate.
Build allies proactively. Once you know your core stakeholders, you need to ensure that you have them on your side—before you execute your strategy, not after. You need communications operatives in the field establishing trust and credibility, so that when you decide to go public with your new initiative, you have friends that you can call upon. If your local community or elected representative first hears from you the minute a crisis hits, it is already too late. Have a team in place that knows the players, knows what they want and understands how to effectively engage with them throughout the course of the normal business cycle. And I always counsel to start from the inside out—never skip over your employees as they can be your most important surrogates. And they’re a good litmus test because if they aren’t buying your message, then no one on the outside will either.
Avoid the bunker at all costs. This is something that any communications professional worth his or her salt will repeat over and over. “No comment” isn’t a strategy—it is an admission of guilt, and it is often a death sentence in moments of challenge, particularly given the speed of communications as you’re immediately ceding the framing of the issue to someone else. This is where aligning communications advisors with legal professionals becomes critical—again, giving both an equal seat at the table. Know what you can say and what you cannot say—but also know that saying nothing is not an option.
Prepare for a competitive response. Any moment of change—whether an opportunity or a challenge—presents an opening for your competitors. If you are announcing a transaction, know that your competitors are likely engaging their own communications team to build a case against it. You have to prepare for this—being reactive in communications is ceding the advantage to your competitors. Communications are a strategic tool—but can also be weapons wielded against you. Scenario plan, understand your vulner-abilities and address them—before executing your strategy.
These rules are not a cure-all, but they are an effective blueprint for success. And they all have one thing in common—they require thoughtful consideration prior to the execution of any transformative business strategy. They require that your communications team is in the room when the big decisions are being made—not waiting outside for a set of talking points. They require a seat at the table.
Ed Reilly is the Global CEO, Strategic Communications for FTI Consulting.