Lessons from our Corporate Affairs Summit

It is now two weeks since more than 130 in-house communications professionals gathered at CorpComms Magazine’s inaugural Corporate Affairs Summit in London.

Using the term ‘corporate affairs’ was deliberate, if at odds with the CorpComms’ moniker, to reflect the breadth of work now undertaken by this function, from internal and external communications to government relations and increasingly ESG, sustainability and corporate brand.

So, what did I, as a non-corporate affairs professional, learn that day? (Please note: this is only a selection of the pearls of wisdom shared by our panellists.)

  • Nobody has all the answers. Even the industry’s most respected practitioners concede that sometimes they wonder: did I get it right? As geopolitics become ever more complex, social issues politicised and the world increasingly polarised, solutions that were once apposite may not be appropriate today. Having a clear set of values or well-known principles can offer guidance – or, at least, consistency.
  • Forget the jargon. Fundamentally, it’s about people. It’s about connecting and building relationships. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, for example, and review the communications they receive. How does it make you feel? Be human. Be thoughtful. Be authentic. Bring emotional intelligence to your role.
  • Corporate affairs is not a thing in itself. It’s a facilitator. It is the fuel in the engine of the organisation. It’s about making the appropriate contributions that helps an organisation achieve its goals.
  • Data and insights should be central to decision-making. While the much lauded ‘ability to see around corners’ still has its place, the ability to interpret data and insights can help to shape strategy or develop new business objectives and is much more powerful. Using data can help the function draw a direct line between its work and the financial impact of that. Virgin Money, for example, has calculated that it employs 32 different types of employees and now has 80 data points to monitor its internal culture. Data helps the bank understand their needs.
  • Commerciality is now key. To truly make a difference in an organisation, you need to know how it makes its money. It’s not just about understanding the numbers, but about following the money. How does the revenue come in? How is it spent? What drives profitability? How many bars of Dairy Milk will this cost, was a constant refrain in Cadbury’s old corporate affairs department.
  • The easiest way to protect a business is to constantly say no. To bring value, corporate affairs professionals need to understand the potential risks and offer ways to manage or mitigate these. If they gain a reputation for simply saying no, they risk being left out of the loop when decisions are being made.
  •  Work with other functions. Build alliances and expand your influence. In one organisation, corporate affairs, working with its finance department, drew on its external relationships to influence Treasury policy, and add £1 billion to the bottom line.
  • A corporate affairs director is in a unique position. He or she is often the only person in a senior position that does not want the chief executive’s job. That brings both power and responsibility. It means being brave and sometimes delivering hard, and uncomfortable, truths. But don’t dilute that power by becoming the ‘bad news’ messenger for everybody else.
  • A seat at a table is not a given. It can be earned by proving the value of the function, by understanding the commerciality of the organisation and speaking the language of business. Indeed, becoming more commercial arguably improves a comms professional’s ability to argue the business case for their allotted seat. If there is no seat, or no room, on the executive committee – and many organisations are cutting the size of these – ensure that your function’s representative carves out space in their allotted time to discuss the corporate affairs agenda.

And, personally, I learned that if you organise an event with panellists that are not regularly seen on the conference circuit, who are widely respected in their fields and who speak with authority and integrity, and you don’t fill the room with suppliers trying to sell, not only will people attend, but they’ll immediately ask you about next year’s programme.