Years ago, the role of corporate communications was mostly reactive. Comms and PR pros were the primary relationship keepers with media, called upon when needed by various segments of a company to deliver their narratives (often in press release form) and help mitigate negative publicity. We delivered value through a rolodex filled with the contact information of trusted journalists and measured our success in impressions. This is an understated and simplistic description of where we started, but my point is this: I “grew up” in this world and it’s changed dramatically over the last 25 years—to the benefit of our careers, but also to the bottom-lines of the companies we serve.
The lens through which corporate communications is viewed and valued is both clearing and shifting. Our work centers on shaping and amplifying brand stories, not “spinning” or merely sharing news. We’re strategists, not solely tacticians—building credibility and leadership, not building buzz. And as the media landscape continues to change, companies are no longer dependent solely on relationships with media to tell their stories. Communicators are now the content creators—and publishers. The news cycle is 24/7, which means the newsroom is always open.
With the transformation of the communicators’ role, companies are increasingly realizing their importance. We’re being brought to the proverbial table and it’s time to take our seat.
5 Critical Levers of Strategic Communications
I’ve been in business—and the business of communications, specifically—for more than two decades. I clearly recall so many instances when budgets got tight, the comms function got squeezed, hard. PR and advertising “campaigns” were the first to go. From there, we were forced to cut people and discontinue branding efforts. In extreme cases the entire department was dismantled with the rhetorical question: Can’t someone else do “it”? Responsibility for communications shifted to HR so the company could communicate benefits and other critical information to employees.
Thankfully, it’s a rare scenario today. In good times and not so good, companies are learning to double down on communications directed at all stakeholders. They have realized that our work is tightly tied to five key levers businesses can’t compromise on.
- Brand reputation: So many businesses regard communications as “just words,” when in fact it’s the totality of their words—and actions. Everything a company says, does, or fails to say or do, contributes to its reputation. And while customers are a key target audience for communicators, it’s not just customers. Reputation impacts the ability to retain and recruit employees too. We’re working in an era where Glassdoor reviews and comments on social media can make, and break, reputation.
- Risk management: Strong, targeted communications are core to building brand reputation—and protecting it too. The complexities of business today have given rise to more risk, from the strategic and calculated (e.g., mergers/acquisitions, global expansion) to compliance and operating risks (e.g., cyber security, natural disasters), and more. Communications isn’t just something that happens when risk is apparent. We’re increasingly part of the identification, evaluation, decision-making and planning processes too.
- Investor confidence: Business is inherently risky. Investors need to know your company is worth the risk. Strategic communication can effectively convey confidence to shareholders by providing consistent updates that highlight corporate strategies, technological advancement, and key contracts wins as proof that the business is profitably growing.
- Employee engagement: Employees are every company’s greatest asset. One of the many differences between today’s employees is they’re not afraid to move on if they’re not engaged. Thoughtful, well planned and creative communications focused on engagement are an effective way to improve retention, boost productivity and encourage employees to give discretionary effort.
- Community relations: Is your company a good neighbor? This is a question that future employees and community leaders want to know. Whether it’s by sponsoring or taking part in community programs or by enabling employee volunteerism, companies that encourage involvement in the community stand out among their peers. Those companies see multiple benefits as a result, such as a happier workforce or a more loyal customer base. Corporate communication is a key player in creating opportunities for employees to engage and drive these programs—and talk about them.
Since I began my career, the value of communications has shifted from a helpful yet discretionary tool to an essential function of strategy and growth. It’s no longer an afterthought or corporate window-dressing. As more chief executives are acknowledging, it’s a serious, strategic aspect of business, and a fundamental ingredient for the health and future of the enterprise. Yes, the landscape continues to evolve, and how we communicate with our stakeholders will also continue to evolve. But what won’t change is why we need to communicate early, often and well: to inform, influence and inspire—everyone. Customers. Employees. Investors. Communities. Ourselves.