Creating Corporate Cheerleaders: The Challenges for Communications Directors

This blog post is by Andrew Mildren, Director.

The collapse of BHS, Sports Direct’s working practices and debates around executive pay have fuelled fresh scrutiny of corporate behaviour at a time when there is uncertainty about the UK’s economic future. The actions of BHS and Sports Direct are extreme but the visibility of these brands on our high streets still has a wider impact on the public’s overall perception of big business.

This heightened focus on corporate behaviour is reflected in the latest PRWeek/Brands2Life Communications Directors survey. Of the 128 senior PR, marketing and communications leaders surveyed, 52% view protecting the company’s brand against crises and issues as their top priority and over a third see maintaining public trust as their key communications challenge.

Half of communications directors also highlight the challenge of ensuring a consistent brand message, with 44% viewing engaging staff with the corporate narrative as a priority. This recognises the fact that matters that were previously ‘internal’ such as working practices, organisational structures and relationships between management and employees, are increasingly the source of external reputational issues.

Organisations today are more transparent, with business leaders expected to be more visible and accountable to staff, investors and too often Parliamentary committees. Employees also expect the same regular and immediate access to information that they have in their personal lives via social media and mobile devices, as well as being more willing and able to voice concerns. Any discrepancy in what is said to different audiences quickly becomes apparent.

Today more than ever, executive communications and employee engagement need to go hand-in-hand. To help make this collaboration effective companies should consider:

  • The role of chief cheerleader: in a PRCA paper written by Giles Fraser, Co-Founder of Brands2Life, entitled ‘The CEO Uncovered’, Ronan Dunne, Chief Executive of Telefonica UK said that he sees communications as his primary role. He states, “when I joined I stood up in front of 600 staff and said I am the Chief Cheerleader and Chief Storyteller for the organisation. Communications is a huge element of how I execute on that responsibility.” As many PR professionals know, CEOs have varying levels of enthusiasm for communications and so finding the channel and themes that fit the CEO’s personal comfort level is important. Whilst fragmentation of media channels can create complexity, it also provides greater flexibility and options for executive communications – via video, social, events or traditional media.

One of the most compelling arguments to gain executive support is that companies with highly effective communications have 47% higher total returns to shareholders over five years compared to the least effective communicators. Companies that communicate effectively also have a 19.4% higher market premium than those that do not.

  • Making everyone a cheerleader: communication abhors a vacuum and if an organisation doesn’t engage, others will fill the vacuum with their own views. Encouraging and involving employees to help tell the corporate story improves staff engagement and understanding, and amplifies the hard work the CEO and marketing team are doing. Plus, it has the added bonus of actually making it easier to create content, as companies will unearth new and exciting stories to tell.

For example, digital security company, Gemalto has invested in equipping its 12,000 employees to act as ambassadors and advocates for the brand online. This initiative centred on training, creating digital content designed for sharing; and then using a link tracking competition to incentivise employees to amplify information, as well as inviting staff to contribute to the company’s brand refresh. Nearly 600 employees from 18 countries have actively participated in the campaign, involving staff in shaping the corporate story and boosting awareness of the Gemalto brand.

  •  Corporate choreography: getting each step right is important to create corporate cheerleaders. CEOs need to define the overall company narrative and in order to be engaged, employees need to understand the overall direction and feel part of it. This can often get lost amidst other priorities and as Sir John Rose, formerly CEO of Rolls-Royce plc, comments “early on I realised we were telling staff less than shareholders. So I spent a huge amount of time talking to the staff.”

This empowers employees to feel confident in amplifying the message. Departmental and mid-level managers play an integral role in embodying the organisation’s values every day. Some of the highest profile corporate issues have emerged when the choreography has broken down between avowed company strategy and how frontline managers and customer-facing staff behave day-to-day.

In an increasingly complex corporate landscape where the employee remains a company’s greatest asset, the most successful brands recognise that aligning executive communications and employee engagement is the key to creating and keeping control of their corporate reputation.