Professional Development

Ten things I learnt as a first time global director of communications

1. keep selling. Yes, you are the buyer now but fundamentally you are still selling. This time it is your ideas, vision, strategy et cetera rather than services. When you think 90 per cent of the internal audience are unfamiliar or even slightly cynical of PR and comms, you very quickly must establish yourself as a thought leader, storyteller and educator.

2. Hitting your stride takes time. Despite just how clever and modernising your 100 day plan is, it takes at least two years to put in place the right strategy, story, team, agencies, budget, measurement and to get one fully accomplished year under your belt in order to hit your stride and thus be in command of all of the levers to really start moving the needle. Absorbing the culture of the business, knowing where the influence is and isn’t and even intellectually getting to a place where you can apply all of your skills takes time. So don’t fret.

3. See the organisation as a social movement not a hierarchy. I think the single biggest surprise was how important internal communications is, and how much I enjoyed it. Above all else I discovered you have to build a brand from the inside out. The secret sauce of any business, even technology ones, comes from the people. Not Group and not the executive floor. Find ways to empower teams if you want to unveil the true personality and character of a business and give them a cause or higher purpose to march toward. Remember, culture eats strategy.

4. Bring the customer into every conversation. PR tends to compete with marketing in many businesses but ultimately they both have to do what the chief executive wants and that is to harmonise their different skills into single campaigns because the consumer is too busy to notice otherwise. For it to work, the message and call to action have to be consistent across all touch points. In terms of different skills, I believe a campaignable idea will tend to start with PR, who are closer to the conversations consumers are having, while marketing looks more for the commercial trend.

5. Embrace the blurred lines. Agency life is quite neat and linear. Financial PR agency speaks to journalists. Lobbying firm has coffee with MP. Consumer agency pitches to head of brand. Client side is very different. Marketing, operations and human resources make up the ‘quad’ and you would be wise to hug them closely. And the lines across social, content and comms are dissolving rapidly.

6. Be business curious. Ask big and small questions relentlessly so you can be a change agent and a warrior for new ideas. Conduct small, forensic enquiries into how and why the business works as it enables you to act like an air-track controller or conductor to the information pulsing around a busy corporate. We had four regions and 14 markets, so learn to be close to the different frontiers. Equally, ask epic, giant questions so you can set big, progressive goals to lead the organisation forward.

7. Don’t underestimate the emotional intelligence (EQ) required of an executive committee leader. Not quite a baptism of fire but when you suddenly find yourself on the executive committee of a 10,000 sized business, you accept you are now a senior leader. With that comes responsibility, accountability and expectations. In an agency you are simply the ‘go to’ guy on a niche topic. Not anymore. To succeed, be resilient to the stress, sensitive to all audiences and act in tune with the highest standards and values of the business.

8. Reputation management theory only gets you so far. Models, theories and case studies help. They guide and sometimes can be an astute organising framework for your strategy. Judgement is in the end what matters and can you make the right calls, decisions and actions to help steward the reputation of the business? My experience is that you should always trust your instinct and get advice from those you trust. One further point is that for all of the grand strategy of corporate affairs, I have no doubt that the one skill you simply cannot do the job without is the ability to craft a narrative for the whole business and to consistently turn that into news and campaigns. It is a premium skill.

9. Be the canary in the coal mine. Reporting into the chief executive and officially being his spokesperson gives you power and influence. Use it wisely to take your agenda forward. On the other hand, you cannot afford to be just a mouthpiece and have to look the behaviour of the business from the lens of the nongovernmental organisation (NGO), consumer and wider public opinion to look for any signal or source of possible damage. Keeping the top of the business in step with society and calling out when they are not is a valued role. Just ask the CEO.

10. Be on the offensive and campaign, don’t sell. Being proactive should be your default. If you want to project your brand take every opportunity to be relevant and that means a news-led comms system, rather than a traditional corporate affairs one, which is by its nature cautionary. Secondly, don’t sell through PR. Striking a chord with the consumer to build loyalty is everything and we can do this by campaigning on the issues of the day, not selling on product features.

This article first appeared in issue 102