VMA Insights: CEOs and what they’re looking for in today’s chief communications officer

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I’ve been doing some late night reading of a rather interesting piece of research. Commissioned by the recruitment firm, the VMA Group, the study reached out to business leaders across Europe to ask a simple question: What do CEOs expect of today’s chief communications officer?

The research looked at a number of key areas, and I’ll outline the key findings below.

  • The Value of Communications
  1. Although the value of communications as a central business operation is implicitly accepted by CEOs, many communications directors still need to make a more convincing ROI case for the impact of their own work.
  2. CEOs are still uncertain that the company’s social media activity is driven by either a strategic purpose or a clear sense of the desired returns.
  3. Reputations are more fragile than ever. CEOs frequently see this as the key value point provided by the communications director.

“We see a corporate communications director as the builder of the brand value proposition, the custodian of the corporate reputation – not in a reactive way but proactively. In order to sell our products and services, increasingly we first have to sell the company. Whether it’s government giving you incentives, or it is customers buying because they trust you. Unless you’ve got a meaningful brand proposition you can’t get off first base.

A strategic communications director understands that and understands that’s their role, and it really ought to have as much value on the balance sheet as other assets of the business because any strategic move will create stress points in the brand proposition that need to be managed.” David Lockwood, CEO, Laird PLC

  • Strategy: Is Communications Trusted
  1. Communications directors are frequently involved in strategy creation; almost always at least with some input.
  2. The Majority of CEOs actively involve the communications director when there is a demonstrably ‘communications-centric’ issue.
  3. Three core strategic viewpoints that communications directors bring to the discussion: how to translate the strategy into content and channels; and the reputational rewards and risks of strategic decisions.
  4. CEOs from multinationals see communications’ input more broadly and progressively – as a vital strategic voice in all business decisions, especially from the perspective of reputation and brand.

“I think it’s obvious that a communications professional needs to be closely linked to the strategy because what they work on – formulating the communications and regulatory environment – is of strategic importance. So communications and public affairs needs not just to be ‘part’ of the company strategy but actually linked to the strategy – wired into the board and well resourced. If it’s an afterthought you might as well save yourself the money and not do it.” Wim Mijs, CEO, European Banking Federation

  • All Change – The New Communications Culture
  1. The digital revolution has brought arguably even more significant changes to the approach and culture of communications than to the core skills of the job.
  2. The ‘message control’ model is over. Key challenge: communications professionals must somehow now find a new way to create alignment among audiences without ever dictating to them.
  3. Authenticity and transparency are the essential tonal cues today – otherwise your communications will be dismissed out of hand.
  4. Audiences expect evidence of a new type of business model – socially responsible, publicly responsive, democratically inclusive.

“We’ve noticed a big and increasing demand for transparency. Our consumers and stakeholders at Arla want to know where their food is coming from. They want transparency in the supply chain. And I would say that the balance between a ‘communications’ approach to stakeholder engagement and a ‘marketing’ approach is shifting in favor of communications. In my business, that’s manifested by an increasing preference for having very honest, authentic, transparent conversations, and moving away from grand claims, mass advertising and so on.” Tomas Pietrangeli, MD, Arla Foods

  • The Challenge of Filtering in an Age of Noise
  1. Discernment and filtering have become core skills – the ability to select from a vast and noisy information flow what is of actual value to the business.
  2. Communications professionals need to rise above the manias and mass panics the online world can create, providing a cool head in a crisis.
  3. A key, proactive part of filtering is to anticipate major disruptive events coming down the pipeline and to have a plan of action for how to deal with them.

“I don’t think anyone’s figured out quite how corporate communications works in a world where social media is on the scene before you are. Trying to control the message is really tough in that environment, of course. But it’s the speed with which other people out there react – with real-time messaging before you’ve even had a chance to get your messages out and establish the facts.” Mark Tanzer, CEO, ABTA

  • The Need for True Leadership
  1. Core technical skills are still important; they must now be supplemented by more core business skills.
  2. CEOs want more than support, counsel or executive ‘translation’ services. Businesses now need true leadership from communications directors.
  3. Proactive endeavour is the critical element – delivering new business growth, rooting out commercial opportunities, driving change internally.

“I find that communications people should be closer to the business. They should be able to understand the company figures properly – to understand the business, but also where it’s heading and what issues it’s going to face. In general, if communications people have sufficient insights in the business, I truly believe they are able to generate more value.” Paul de Krom, CEO, TNO

  • The Future: A Profession in Revolutionary Change

There’s no key findings here (I’ve highlighted the capabilities required by CEOs today in the image at the beginning of the article). However, I do want to pull up one last quote, as it’s particularly apt to the Middle East, where we have an issue with speaking truth to power and instead focusing on political maneuvering inside the organization.

Before that, I’d like to say thank you to the VMA Group for this thought-provoking report, especially the International Association of Business Communicators EMENA board member Willem de Ruijter, for handing the report out to IABC EMENA and pushing this onto the agenda.

“The communications director works in the same room in the building as the secretary of the board – in fact we are all now on one floor, we do not have separate rooms anymore. S/he has full access to everything, no restrictions. S/he is actively involved and is asked to stimulate and to give feedback. Her/his message should be frank when required… and provocative too. S/he needs to be able to tell a senior leader who has worked at KPMG for 25 years that he or she does not possess the correct KPMG vision. That takes a certain character.” Albert Röell, CEO, KPMG NL

For your own copy of the report please reach out to the VMA Group via this link.

 

 

The PR industry needs to do much more for employees and their mental health

For many of you, the headline will be no surprise. When it comes to mental health issues, the public relations and communications industry just isn’t doing enough. A survey undertaken by the PRCA and ICCO, in partnership with IABC, across Europe and the Middle East underlines the scale of the issue that is facing the industry. Here are my highlights from the 140 plus respondents.

1. Mental Health is an issue for many of us

Mental Depression Suffering PR people

A quarter of respondents to the survey said that they had suffered from mental ill health

A quarter of those surveyed said they’d had mental health issues, the majority of them being diagnosed (either professionally or self-diagnosed) with depression or anxiety.

2. PR Practitioners don’t feel the industry is accepting of people suffering from mental ill health.

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The majority of respondents felt that the PR and communications industry isn’t accepting of people suffering from mental ill health

There’s a widespread perception among people working in the PR industry that the industry as a whole isn’t willing to help those suffering from mental ill health. A quarter did say that they felt the profession was fairly accepting, while almost half said the industry was either not very accepting or very accepting. Almost a third responded by saying they didn’t know.

3. Few Organizations have a mental health policy in place

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Less than ten percent of respondents answered that their firm has a formal mental health policy

What’s most concerning is the the apparent lack of any formal mental health frameworks or policies in place among both agencies and client-side teams. Fewer than ten percent of respondents said their team had any systems in place. I’d assume this would also extend to insurance coverage for mental health issues. If there are policies in place, it’s clear that they’re not being communicated effectively to employees.

4. Workloads up, and Stress is also on the rise

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Unsurprisingly, over fifty percent of respondents felt more stressed today than they did a year back

These responses mirror my own observations about workloads. The industry is struggling with workloads, especially on the agency side where margins are tight. Over half of respondents said they’re suffering from more stress today compared to 12 months ago, partly due to internal pressures and also partly due to client demands (this was a frequent issue that was flagged up by agency people, underlining the lack of understanding many on the client side have on agency pressures).

5. Colleagues, not Managers, are the go-to people to talk about mental health

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Employees are much more eager to talk to colleagues, rather than managers. There’s a 50/50 split on those who would be willing to talk to colleagues, compared to a 40/60 split for those who would prefer to talk to their manager.

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Management need to do more to be approachable on the issue on mental health. This may prove a challenge for some, especially if the employee believes that the manager is responsible for his or her poor mental health.

This is just a snapshot of the research that the PRCA and ICCO will be releasing today. I’d like to thank both organizations for their work, as well as the CIPR, for promoting debate on a topic which has been ignored for far too long. The PRCA will be hosting webinars on mental health and how you can best deal with this issue. The CIPR also has a host of resources online. Please do visit their respective websites to keep up to date on the issue. I hope more associations begin to understand the importance of talking about this issue, so that those in our industry who need help get it, and so that employers realize the importance of promoting mental well being and a balanced approach to how we work.

Can We Please Appoint (Qualified) Comms People to Comms Roles?

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“Did you hear about the time they appointed a banker to head up communications in the White House?”

It’s rant time. I saw the news this morning that President Trump is expected to name Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. This follows the move by United Airlines to promote its general counsel to effectively head/oversee global communications.

When is the last time any self-respecting firm went out and hired a CFO who wasn’t a chartered accountant. Or a legal counsel who was not licensed? And yet, despite crisis after crisis, firms and organizations are still appointing people to look after their reputations who are neither qualified nor have the necessary experience.

While I’ve written before about merit, this is different. As an industry and a function, we need to start promoting the idea of a global qualification that will be a prerequisite for stepping up to a certain role or responsibility. 

Organizations need to know that the person they’re bringing in is competent at all times (particularly during a crisis), is ethical in their behavior, understands how to listen to and engage with all stakeholders, and is able to show a proper understanding of how communications delivers organizational value through measurement. A certification should be able to prove this and more.

The CIPR has developed its accredited and chartered status labels. The IABC also has its CMP and SCMP certifications. As an industry, isn’t it about time that we come together, through a global body such as the Global Alliance, to push for certification for members and for hiring managers and organizations who are looking for communications professionals to favor those practitioners who are globally certified?

I’d say yes, it’s about time.

Join me and pledge to work with and hire comms people on merit

On merit

Merit. I just love that word and what it means. To quote the Oxford Dictionary, the noun merit is understood to mean, “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” Hence the phrase, to be deemed worthy of something on merit.

I was reminded of the notion this week, by a journalist who was Tweeting about being treated poorly by a brand. Her frustration was in part to her feeling that she was being mistreated by the brand’s agency due to her cultural heritage. I completely understood her frustration and her sense of injustice, hence why I’m writing this post.

In one sense, we’re lucky to work in the Gulf. It’s an up-and-coming region which has attracted some remarkable communications and media talent and experience from around the world. There’s a dynamic feel to working in such a multi-racial industry.

At the same time, I often get the feel of tribalism, of people in companies and institutions wanting to work with one of their own, not for any other reason than culture or nationality. It probably doesn’t surprise many of us that people stereotype (and if you don’t believe me, look at this research from Berkeley-Haas Asst. Prof. Ming Leung who analyzed 3.9 million applications), but there’s also official discrimination – the hiring of certain nationalities to fill quotas – as well as unconscious bias . Finding people on merit, who can do the best job, seems to be a challenge we employers often get wrong.

The question I then have to ask is what does bringing the wrong people do to our industry, or even people who are too junior or who don’t have the right understanding of the role or the audience? In my own view, it devalues the work of us all, pushes us farther away from the board room, and loses us respect from those we work with, be they colleagues internally, media professionals or other stakeholder groups.

We have to look beyond traits such as race, nationality, gender, and ask if the person you’re looking to hire and work with has the right attitude, understanding, skills and experience for the role. We need more diversity and inclusion in our industry which mirrors that of our audiences and communities, and that will happen by understanding our biases and looking beyond them to finding the best talent out there, who deserve and will succeed in a role based on their own merit. That includes working with representative bodies such as the CIPR, IABC, Global Alliance and MEPRA who promote skills-based learning and certification programs.

I’m willing to take a pledge now to work with and hire comms people on merit. I want you to join me in taking this pledge. Either share this article or leave a comment below. Together, we can and will change the comms industry for the better, to be a function that respects and promotes the notion of merit.

How Psychology Promotes Organizational Change – A Guide by Hilary Scarlett

Organizational change impact on our brains

According to Hilary Scarlett, organizational change can often be a stressful experience for most employees, whose performance declines as a result.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – communicators aren’t spending enough time getting their heads around psychology and how it can help us better engage with our audiences (what’s the point in understanding the how of our jobs, if we don’t get the why).

The above reason is why I was thrilled to see a keynote presentation on neuroscience by Hilary Scarlett at IABC’s Eurocomm event recently. Hilary is an expert in the area of cognitive neuroscience; she’s written extensively on how the discipline can and should be used by communicators and management teams, especially during times of change.

I’d like to share key takeaways from Hilary’s presentation, as well as from her book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change (thank you for the gift Jasna!), here, in the hope that these insights will help you manage organizational change.

  • We’re not Designed for Change

Our brains haven’t evolved at the same pace as our workplaces. As Hilary explained, our brains aren’t designed for 21st century corporate life. Rather, the brain’s goal is survival. We do this by avoiding threats and seeking rewards. However, of the two responses the threat response is much stronger, which explains why there’s so much resistance to change. Our brains are constantly looking to predict what will happen.

'Not everyone is able to cope with change.'

Cavemen in the office? Our brains haven’t developed at the same pace as our workplaces (image source: cartoonstock.com)

But there is neuroplasticity; our brains can restructure, change and learn throughout our life, if we choose to continue developing ourselves (lifelong learning).

  • We Don’t Like Change

This is a logical extension to how our brains work. We want predictability, which helps with survival. For many of us, organizational change is the exact opposite of predictability, and we see it as a threat. When we see a threat, we switch to a ‘fight or flight’ mentality and think less rationally. We become more hostile in the workplace.

Fight Or Flight

When we feel threatened, we switch to a fight or flight mode. This is especially true during times of change (image source: psychlopedia.wikispaces.com).

The issue of certainty is crucial here. Research shows that we’re more comfortable with knowing bad news, than not knowing anything at all (the don’t say anything to the last minute approach, which seems to be the way many organizations work when it comes to communicating bad news).

We’re also guided by our past experiences, and they shape our current behavior and attitudes.

  • SPACES – A Planning Tool for Supporting Change Management

Hilary provides a wealth of good advice on how to support change management. One which I found especially useful was her own planning tool on supporting change. Named SPACES, you can see the visual framework below.

SPACES planning tool for change

SPACES is a planning tool developed by Hilary Scarlett to help communicators navigate organizational change. The six central elements can either positively or negatively impact on employee reaction during a change in the workplace.

Hilary outlines six key factors that can push people to either see the change as a threat or as a reward. She then outlines the impact that a shift in either direction will have on behavior.

The six elements are:

  1. Self esteem – the feeling of importance relative to others.
  2. Purpose – having a sense of direction, meaning and usefulness.
  3. Autonomy – the perception of having control over events, being able to make choices and having your voice heard.
  4. Certainty – being able to predict what will happen and how to respond.
  5. Equity – the notion of fairness and transparency, especially during times of change.
  6. Social Connection – feeling connected to others, especially as part of a group.
  • The Role of Communicators in Change Management

The good news is that we communicators have a key role in any change project. People want information, and the sooner they get it, the better it is for their level of certainty.

We need to be the people who provide that certainty, through providing information and positioning change in a way that doesn’t infer what we are doing is wrong.

Some of Hilary’s key suggestions are putting in place regular communications timings (which supports our need for consistency and predictability), supporting the organization’s ability to understand employee insights through engagement and dialogue, guiding leadership on messaging and how to deliver this messaging through visuals and narratives, and creating a sense of purpose for everyone to support.

I’m going to end on this note. if you want to know more, then go out and grab a copy of Hilary’s book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change. You can thank me later!

Step up, support the Comms industry. Volunteer for the IABC EMENA Board!

Volunteer

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s a well-known secret in the communications industry that we’re awful at PRing what we do. The public relations sector doesn’t engage enough with the outside world in terms of what we do and why we’re of real value to any organization.

For me it was exciting to see the turnout at the annual regional Eurocomm event in London recently. The number of professionals who cared enough to travel to London for several days, and engage in learning and debate about the industry, was inspiring. There’s a lot of good will and positive sentiment around the communications sector at the moment, which I hope will long continue.

But, I’m never satisfied. I’d like for us to build on that engagement, and ask you, the communications professionals who I engage with here online, or through social media, to put themselves forward to volunteer to support the industry’s growth and act as leaders and mentors to those who want to learn about and join the sector.

As a not-for-profit organization that aims to promote public relations both globally and throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, IABC works through volunteers. The Europe, Middle East and North Africa board supports activities across the most diverse, and most exciting region for communicators. Under the board, IABC has a host of country chapters that help with everything from organizing our large events (think Eurocomm which was held in London in March), to smaller activities such as media evenings, webinars and training. Volunteers can also help in research work and soliciting ideas and thoughts from our wider family of members.

If you want to give back and help, why don’t you step up and volunteer on the EMENA board? Volunteering is one of the most rewarding activities that I’ve engaged in, and I’m sure you’d enjoy working with a group of people who could not be more passionate about what we do and why we do it.

Please do drop me a line in the comments or send me a message through social media and we can take the conversation from there. You can find more details here on the IABC website. Nominations are open until Wednesday the 17th May.

So, what do you say? Are you up for it?

What challenges will communicators face in 2017?

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It’s no understatement to say that 2016 was a shock to the system. We’ve faced political upheavals, the rise of populists and the proliferation of fake news, and that’s just for starters. The Middle East region has been impacted by continuing conflict as well as financial belt-tightening caused by low oil and gas prices. Needless to say, 2016 hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for many communicators.

So what do we have to expect in 2017? Looking into my crystal ball, I see  a number of issues that will grow in prominence. Here’s my take on them:

  • Political Interference and its Impact on Brand Values

The rise of populist politicians isn’t anything new, but their use of social media to communicate directly with their publics, eschewing traditional media, is something brands will have to deal with. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump is impacting brands in the US (examples include his tweets on Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have wiped billions off company share values).

Communicators will need to work out how to deal with this new type of political interference. They’ll need to improve their online engagement, using the same social media tools as these politicians (Twitter, I hope you realize how much of a god-send Trump is for your platform), as well as espouse brand values that stakeholders believe in and want to defend.

There’s a danger here that brands will retreat into communicating in the same populist language as the politicians, or simply keep quiet and hope that the storm will pass them by. I hope that brand owners and communicators will instead engage on issues with a purpose and positive values.

  • Expect More Fake News

Whether we like it or not, fake news is here to stay. The year that was 2016 saw fake news become a cottage industry, with ‘content producers’ in places like Macedonia spewing out false stories which went viral through social media and which generated thousands of dollars of ad revenues. Much of this fake news was focused on politics; this is likely to change in 2017, with fewer key political votes. Instead, we’re going to see more fake celebrity news, as well as fake news in languages other than English. This may play into regional conflicts. Brands need to be aware of what is being said about them, especially in Arabic, Farsi and other regional languages.

  • The Continued Rise of Social Influencers

 

Whether you like it or not, 2016 was the year of Social Influencers. This trend is set to continue into 2017, particularly with Snapchat having opened up an office in Dubai, and with brands/organizations realizing that they have to do more to engage with stakeholders online. Expect there to be more questions around online metrics such as reach, engagement and, most important of all, return-on-investment. Also expect that the cost of working with social influencers will rise, particularly in locations such as Dubai, Kuwait and Riyadh.

I hope that brands will start to think differently about the type of social influencers they’d like to work with, and begin nurturing relationships with real fans with smaller followings rather than purchase engagement through influencers who have large followings but who don’t necessarily understand or love the brand. In other words, we need to rethink what social influencers are and what they mean to us.

  • The Urgent Need to Prove Our Worth 

This is a perennial favorite, but we’re going to struggle to underline the value that we bring to our organizations in 2017. Why? Because of an inability to link our outcomes to organizational objectives for many of us, partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding about the need to leverage measurement values. We’re also lacking a universal definition of what we do and globally-accepted certifications that prove we can walk the talk. The Global Alliance is working hard on the first issue, and others such as the CIPR and IABC are pushing ahead on the second. However, we’re still going to struggle with proving our worth to those that we work with and others that we need to work with.

There are a number of others who have shared their own views. Wadds has a longer list which is a fascinating read (you can see it here), and Omnicom’s David Gallagher has written down his own thoughts on the issues we will face in the year ahead.

What are your thoughts. What challenges will we see, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? I’d love to hear from you.