The essential qualities that companies are looking for in their corporate communicators are changing, as Andrew Cave discovers
Andrew Cave is a freelance journalist, who writes the weekly business profile in The Sunday Telegraph as well as several other regular features for the Daily Telegraph. He has recently published his first book, The Secrets of CEOs
A decade ago, this spoof advert for a corporate communications director might not have made much sense. Zuckerberg was still at high school and most people would have defined a social network as a golf club or a wine-tasting circle.
But since 2001, there's not only been a second dotcom bubble around Facebook and Twitter but also the biggest financial crisis in capitalism's history and the arrival of a much more international, connected world.
In rapidly-changing times, requirements for corporate communications chiefs will surely follow suit. And recruiters say that is exactly what is happening, with clients producing everexpanding wish-lists of attributes.
Once upon a time, companies wanted former journalists with detailed insider knowledge of how newsrooms were run and how editors thought, so as to maximise their influence. However, in a much more regulated world, post-crisis, headhunters say companies are now looking much more towards government and regulators.
They are also seeking much higher levels of financial literacy and technological know-how than previously and, perhaps worryingly for some lifetime PR people, they are very attracted by people with experience of how business really works.
Nick Helsby, managing director of executive search specialist Watson Helsby, believes the changed requirements are simply about meeting new corporate challenges. He says: 'The biggest change for most companies has been the increase in the range of stakeholders they have to deal with and the fact that digital media has given them both a voice and influence they did not previously have.
'There's been enormous growth in the influence of indirect stakeholders, such as NGOs, community activists, single issue groups, online networks who have tasked businesses with a broader set of expectations, such as combating climate change, obesity, HIV and human rights abuses.
'In addition, the proliferation of media technologies and outlets, along with the emergence of new web-based participatory media has given individuals and organisations new tools to subject companies to wider and faster scrutiny.'
The increasing attractiveness of communicators with government backgrounds is but one result of the greater pressures that corporations are under. Job moves in recent years include Howell James from the Cabinet Office to become Barclays' director of corporate affairs; Sue Garrard from the Department for Work and Pensions to the role of Unilever's senior vice-president of global communications and Clare Harbord from the Ministry of Justice to corporate affairs director of airports group BAA.
Elsewhere, Tesco has appointed Tom Curry, head of media at the Olympic Delivery Authority, as UK communications director, while DJ Collins, director of communications and public policy for Google in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is a former UK government head of news.
Connections in government
'Anyone who wants to be a corporate communications director should try to get exposure to government networks,' says one senior headhunter. 'It's perhaps more important than investor relations now. Boards nowadays want gravitas and connections.'
There are other important changes too. 'The key quality everybody wants these days is the ability to run an integrated campaign,' says Rebecca Whitney, managing partner of specialist communications executive search agency Armstrong Hope. 'In the past, communication directors were regarded as press and media spokesmen. Nowadays, companies often want someone who can take on all external communications. That's why the job is often called corporate affairs, rather than corporate communications.'
Whitney says candidates for such roles need to be able to hit the ground running in rapidly-changing markets, which means that there is much less hiring across industry sectors. 'In the past, we have taken people from pharmaceuticals companies and put them in charge of corporate communications at telecom companies but that's happening much less now,' she states. 'It's no good starting a job as corporate communications director and saying that you don't know anyone on the select committee overseeing the sector. Companies are looking for people who have immediate contacts in the relevant areas.'
Equally, knowledge of digital and social media is moving rapidly from a 'nice-to-have' to a quality that's fast becoming essential for corporate communications directors. 'Corporate communications is unrecognisable from ten years ago because of the way that the Internet now dominates communications,' says Narda Shirley, director of public relations agency Gong Communications.
'It used to be that corporate communications transmitted information to audiences according to its own timetable in a controlled and considered way, carefully selecting influencers and stakeholders to engage with. That has been replaced by an onslaught of forced conversation, fuelled by the web and social media, with customers, colleagues, journalists and nongovernmental organisations forcing their own issues and priorities onto the agenda.'
Shirley argues that the role of communications chief has had to evolve faster than any other corporate function in response to these changing conditions, making the role much more layered and complex.
Helsby goes even further, arguing that understanding the agendas and potential influence of such varied stakeholders and grasping how they might combine to impact the business is now 'a non-negotiable skill' for corporate communications directors.
To meet such challenges, the organisational role of communications directors is changing, with many taking seats on their organisations' executive committee, rather than simply receiving information from such meetings and deciding who they need to transmit it to. Corporate communicators with such close involvement at operating level include Philip Thomson, senior vice-president of global communications at GlaxoSmithKline, Charlotte Lambkin, group communications director at BAE Systems and Catherine May and George Mayhew, directors of corporate affairs at Centrica and National Grid respectively.
Search consultants say this denotes a desire among chairmen and chief executives for corporate communications directors to be top-level partners in the company's strategy and its execution.
Understanding the big picture
'Companies are now looking for people with an aerial view of the big picture who can work closely with the senior leadership team,' says Chantal Tregear, a director at communications appointments agency Taylor Bennett. 'They want people who can sit on the executive committee, at the heart of business strategy, helping influence and guide the style and character of the organisation. Ten years ago, I doubt you would find many communications people sitting at that level but today chief executives are looking for communication heads who are much closer to what's happening in the business.
'They no longer just want a personal advisor on their style and presentation. They want someone at the heart of the organisation who has a deep understanding of how it works.'
As a consequence, she says the corporate communication director role has changed from being led by heavy media skills to encompassing broader management skills, such as the ability to spot issues coming up and know how to deal with them.
This trend is also affecting reporting lines for corporate communication directors, who now increasingly report directly to the group or divisional chief executive, rather than the marketing, sales or human resources functions. 'This has demonstrably changed since the 2008/09 financial crisis,' reports Jenni Hibbert, who leads the corporate communications searches for financial services clients in the London practice of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
Another difference, exacerbated by the response to that crisis is a much more central role for internal communications. Hibbert says: 'In the crisis, a lot of companies turned much more to their internal communications, making sure that the leadership was visible, that staff were owning the messages and that the messages were clear and consistent. Any senior communications professional has a large part to play in that.
'Companies are becoming much more joined up in their communications, whether it is internal or external. The situation where you have a corporate communications person operating in their own bubble has gone because chief executives see them as critical in terms of reputation and brand management.'
Helsby believes this represents a risk for corporate communicators as well as an opportunity.
'Internal communications always used to be the poor relation of external communications and was treated accordingly by communications directors who had little time or interest in it,' he says. 'This has changed, or is changing. Most companies are not very good at it and communications directors have to learn to understand this area a lot better or they will cede control of it to someone that does.'
This all means that many corporate communications directors now have a very different job to even a few years ago. Geraldine Davies, who leads the London search practice of specialist communications recruitment firm Ellwood & Atfield, sees more changes ahead, arguing that the arrival of WikiLeaks, Freedom of Information legislation and ever-increasing regulatory disclosure all put more focus on transparency and risk management.
'In the future, communications directors may have to involve themselves much more in corporate governance and risk management,' she says. 'This is what's coming to prominence.'