The role of the communicator in a transparent world Article icon


Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life, considers the evolving role of the communicator

There’s nowhere to hide for corporations these days. If a consumer has a bad experience in a shop or online he or she can share their pain immediately to the world. And the corporation that delivers an experience different from their brand promise will have hell to pay. Conversely, people will tolerate the odd imperfection, within reason, as long as a brand is upfront about it. Authenticity is the name of the game.

In a ‘post-spin world’ authenticity is much more highly-valued than ever before whether it be a microbrewery beer, a heroic sports team or a politician even if they appear slightly imperfect.

And , thanks to social media, if enough people demonstrate they like something unusual everyone else has the confidence to join in. Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise is a case in point.

So, where does this leave the role of the communications function? Does this requirement for greater transparency and openness give them more or less influence? Does a world where only the truth is tolerated have room for the communicator’s arts?

I would argue (surprise, surprise) yes. One of the consequences of the advent of digital is that, loosely speaking, most marketing disciplines can deliver the same outcomes as each other. As some people have put it PR is marketing and marketing is PR. In a world where marketing is more about a conversation than a broadcast, the communications function is well-placed. #

Why? Firstly we’re used to interacting with stakeholders and, secondly, because, with our closeness to the media agenda, we know what narratives and stories will be both credible and engaging. No other function has these capabilities at their disposal. Thirdly, many comms professionals have the skill-sets to conduct meaningful, genuine dialogues with customers and shareholders through social media.

So, given that a compelling corporate or brand narrative has to work seamlessly across all internal and external channels that really does give the communications team a huge advantage when it comes to taking the lead in corporate and brand programmes and campaigns.

In my view, there are four key areas where many communicators need to develop if they are to seize this opportunity.

The first area of focus needs to be around tone-of-voice and bravery. If a brand wants to stand out then how much do they need to open up and what aspects of their brand personality do they need to highlight? Are they prepared to take a stand on an issue important to the consumer even if it upsets shareholders? (The trade-off between being green and cost-effective is a case in point here). And are they prepared to use humour and, possibly, laugh at themselves? These decisions need to be made because, if the business doesn’t make them, it is pretty certain the public will make them on its behalf!

Employee engagement and activation is the second area. Indeed, our research shows that many communications heads now spend more time on internal communications than external as that is where the greatest benefits of their experience can be realised.

First of all staff have to feel informed through good and bad times, especially if times are bad and they are being expected to keep performing despite there being little prospect of immediate reward.

Secondly, many staff want to be active ambassadors for their employer whether that be through traditional methods or through social media. They need guidance on what they can and can’t say; they need a good corporate narrative they can get behind and they need a regular flow of engaging content they can share with their friends and followers. If an organisation gets this right then its staff will tell its story for them.

Thirdly, there needs to be a focus on business as well as communications impact when planning and executing campaigns. An ability to articulate the potential business benefits of a particular activity to the board can make a massive difference to the budget allocated if the budget-holder is confident in the outcome.

Other professional advisers, such as bankers and accountants, are often better at framing these discussions and thus making the case for their funding. The focus needs to start at a high level: what are the strategic imperatives and what are the barriers to growth – and then ask how can communications help?

The importance of data for the communications function has become more important in making the business case. It is far easier, faster and cheaper to access good customer and market data than ever before. Whether it be for brand perception, insights and discovery, influencer mapping or measurement and evaluation, comms can now combine creativity with analytics.

As someone said to me recently: ‘Before you do your art, you’ve got to do your science.’ The smart use of data puts comms in a much better position to fight its corner when it needs to compare its effectiveness with that of marketing. In our experience, the biggest challenge is getting hold of the data if we don’t own the tools ourselves.

Client analysts are often heavily-focussed on performance-based marketing requirements and have little time for the requests of PR people. But, if you can persuade them to give you the time then it can yield dividends.

One of our team spent a day with a client data analyst last year looking at the results of a recent campaign aimed at business decision-makers. She was delighted to find that, comparing year-on-year, our campaign had significantly increased both the value and the quality of sales and sales leads coming into the business during that period.

The ability to showcase that data as part of the campaign reporting gave the client the confidence to allocate budget for a much bigger campaign in the following year. The fourth area of potential development is around customer engagement, especially through social media.

There is the opportunity to make an impact at the end of the customer buying cycle with customer interest, purchase and loyalty, as well as at the start in terms of awareness and favourability.

There is no reason why a good PR-driven brand campaign cannot deliver some strong customer engagement and sales results as well as an uplift in the brand profile. One only has to look at some of the recent award-winning campaigns to see how this can be done. Likewise the enormous size of some SEO budgets shows how valuable the links generated by really creative campaigns can be.

This does mean, of course, that the comms practitioner has to learn the jargon of online marketing but, if they can do so, then they are in a far better position to fight for funds. There should be a health warning when making this point.

Classic PR-driven communications can’t always compete with the raw return on investment of pay-per-click or search-engine-marketing (although things like Twitter advertising often can). So it is important to emphasise – and measure – the brand effect of any campaign, whether it be in terms of message penetration, favourability or share-of-voice. It should also try to capture the more intangible benefits such as the contribution to the brand personality and distinctiveness.

Our industry has changed more in the last five years than it ever has before and it will change even more in the next five. The potential areas of growth have never been so wide or varied. So the influence of the communications professional can only increase across all these areas as long as we invest in the skills, tools and resources to make the most of the opportunity.