The need to move comms past window-dressing: Adopting a standard certification for comms

For many companies, it feels as if communications is simply window-dressing. We have to change perceptions about our profession (image source: http://www.hansboodtmannequins.com)

There are times when I have no other reaction but to laugh. I was sat with an acquaintance and we were talking about a company which was hiring for a senior comms role. Me being me, I wanted to help out and recommend someone, and I asked the obvious question.

“What are they looking for?” I said.

“A pretty Lebanese girl,” was the response.

My friend was part joking, but also part serious. And here’s why. For far too long, communications has been seen as a nice-to-have, a function that isn’t really strategic. Unfortunately, what has often happened is that communications has become the department where either someone senior is left to ‘retire’, or it’s the place where an inexperienced but attractive character is brought in.

This Has To Change

We need to stop treating communications as a window dressing. Reputation matters, in both good and bad times (ask anyone who works at Volkswagen about the importance of reputation and its cost to the business). Today, thanks to social media, any one consumer or stakeholder can call out your company, for both good reasons and bad. And yet, few companies in the MENA region have people who can effectively steward and build reputations.

So, how do we do it?

Firstly, the industry needs to talk more about what communications truly is and what it can do for organizations and their publics. Many of us will work tirelessly for our brands, but we’re awful at doing public relations for ourselves. There’s not enough people out there, particularly among the C-level crowd and within human resources who actually know what communications is about. As an industry we have to spend more time educating our peers, so that they know what we do and the value of our work.

Secondly, we need a universally accepted certification. Would you go to a lawyer who doesn’t have a degree. Or how about a doctor who didn’t attend medical school? And yet, most of us in the communications industry have never studied public relations and understood the theory underpinning our work. If we’re to evolve, and become better at what we do, then we need to go forward as an industry and adopt a standard certification, be it that advocated by the CIPR or IABC. We need people who are accredited, who have invested time in their development, and who can say, “I know my communications theory and this is how I can prove it.”

I’m used to the status quo. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want change. I want our profession to be respected, to have a seat at the table, and to be strategic. I hope you’ll join me, so that together we can push for change.

The State of the PR Industry in South Africa – key trends shaping business communications

I had the pleasure of being in Toronto recently, a remarkable place in an even more impressive country. I also had the honor of being in the presence of a couple hundred communicators at the World Public Relations Forum. The topic of the forum, which I’ll write more about in due course, was culture and communications. Being from Dubai and covering the MENA region, there was one particular presentation which caught my eye. The topic was the state of the PR Industry in South Africa – key trends shaping business communications.

Undertaken by Daniel Munslow, Principal Consultant at recruiters VMA Group, with support from the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa and the International Association of Business Communicators, the research covered a range of issues, from employment trends, recruitment and outsourcing, to skills development and training, key business challenges, digital media and future proofing. Over 386 communicators from 251 organizations took part in the survey, the majority of them from South Africa, but with responses from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

So, what are the learnings?

Challenging Times for Budgets

The communications industry, particularly in South Africa is facing a number of headwinds, including both economic and political pressures. Here are the financial highlights from the executive summary.

• 29% of respondents confirmed their teams had shrunk in the last year;
• 35% of comms budgets have increased, and the exact same amount have decreased their budgets;
• 30% of communicators say their salaries were cut or remained the same year on year;
• Nearly 9% of respondents have started their own consultancies on the back of retrenchments (5% of those surveyed have been retrenched since March 2015);
• Downward pressure on budgets has overtaken skills shortages as the number one concern for communicators. In 2015, 22% said budget was a key challenge for business over the next 12 months, this number has increased to 58%.

What impact will this have on agencies, especially those who are regionally headquartered in Dubai and who have taken a bet on the African market outgrowing the Middle East this year?

There's a great deal of scope for agencies to further their consultancy role with African corporations

There’s a great deal of scope for agencies to further their consultancy role with African corporations

Over three-quarters of in-house communicators outsource 25 percent or less of their communications activities to agencies. While budgetary pressures may limit the demand for agency services in the short term, will Africa follow other regions and embrace outsourcing to communications agencies?

An Increasingly Complex Business Environment

It’s also apparent that African communicators are not only having to deal with financial pressures, but a host of business and organizational issues which are making their jobs much harder.

The top five challenges for African communicators say much about how the industry is changing

The top five challenges for African communicators say much about how the industry is changing

Partly due to the ubiquity of digital, audiences are becoming ever more fragmented. And communicators are also worried about the ability of their leadership to communicate, both internally and externally. There’s a lack of African talent and a need for communicators to skill-up (interestingly, career development is the number one reason people leave their jobs. Remuneration is rated the third reason only). And, as organizations are getting larger, they’re also becoming more complex which is impacting the ability of communicators to engage internally.

There are reasons to be optimistic, particularly when considering the seniority of communicators in South Africa. Forty-five percent of those surveyed responded that they reported into the CEO or MD of their organization.

Nearly half of South African communicators surveyed said they report into the most important executive in their organization

Nearly half of South African communicators surveyed said they report into the most important executive in their organization

A Digital Future

It’s unsurprising that digital is playing a major role in how communicators in South Africa engage with others. Facebook is the most popular channel, followed by Twitter and LinkedIn. Only 17 percent of social media communications is outsourced, with corporations instead preferring in-house resources (for now at least).

These are the most popular social networks among the communicators surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa

These are the most popular social networks among the communicators surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa

However, there are still major barriers including a lack of understanding regarding a return on investment, a lack of time and a fear that something inappropriate may be said online.

Barriers to social media in Southern AfricaDespite all the challenges that African communicators face in today’s troubled economic and political environment, there’s a strong belief among those surveyed that the industry will continue to go from strength to strength. Ninety-one percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that the influence exerted by the communications function will increase over the next two years.

Additionally, 64 percent of the communications functions surveyed are involved in projects from the get-go, rather than further down the development stage when reputation issues arise.

There’s no doubt that Africa represents an exciting market for the communications industry in the medium to long-term. However, short-term issues will need to be tackled, especially a lack of talent and a skills shortage.

You can download the full VMA Africa Communication Survey 2016 here. For more information on the survey, do reach out to Daniel Munslow at dmunslow@vmagroup.com

Taylor Bennett’s Kate Hamilton-Baily on what executives are looking for when it comes to top communicators

Reputation management and internal communications are two skill-sets in demand, according to Kate Hamilton-Baily

Reputation management and internal communications are two skill-sets in demand, according to Kate Hamilton-Baily

There’s been much talk about communications and how the role of the communicator is changing. As part of this debate, I wanted to get a different insight. I spoke to Kate Hamilton-Baily, Director at the leading global communications executive search firm, Taylor Bennett, to get her perspective on what business executives are looking for from their communication directors and what we need to do to make sure that we’re prepared for today’s job market. Kate spoke at IABC’s Eurocomm 2016 event in Rotterdam. I caught up with Kate to ask her a couple of questions on issues such as skills, employability and the convergence of marketing and communications.

Alex: So tell me about yourself Kate.

Kate: I’m one of the directors of Taylor Bennett, an specialist executive search firm which focuses purely on senior communications roles. With our sister companies Heyman Associates in the United States and Taylor Bennett Heyman, in Asia and Australasia. We have fifty search professionals globally focused on senior communications briefs and we meet over two thousand senior communications professionals every year, so we have a pretty good understanding of what is shaping today’s top communicators.

Alex: So, what are the big communications issues that executives care about?

Kate: Reputational management has moved up the agenda following the financial crash in 2008. It is now recognized as having a tangible impact on the success of a business or organization or institution. In line with this has been the breakdown of trust between the public, government and many parts of the business world, alongside the growth of digitization and an incredible range of new social media channels. Internal communications and engagement has really come of age and is seen as a strategic and important discipline. Then there is the convergence between marketing and communications.

Digital has had a major impact on the communications role, as has the breakdown in trust between the public, government and business. Executives want someone who can cut through all of the data and tell the organization’s story in a creative, transparent way that will engage multiple audiences externally and internally. They’re looking for a talent that can marry the gap between what the organization says and means and what the public hears and understands.

Alex: What other issues are you seeing? What is driving communications?

Kate: We’re witnessing the need for both deep expertise in areas such as internal communications and engagement but also broad corporate leadership attributes and skills at the top end able to understand how to campaign effectively and get their message across in a very noisy world. Business understanding remains critical.

If I look into career progression, mid-career experiences are vital in terms of your future progression. So, for example, if you have only worked in an external communications role, or in government relations, spending a year in internal communications will give you a completely different perspective and really help as you go for more senior director level roles.

Alex: Tell me about convergence. What does this concept mean to communicators and their careers?

Kate: Convergence has been around for a while, especially in the B2B space. Marketing used to lead communications especially in the B2C sectors, but with concepts such as reputation management it’s become more complex. You’re now seeing communication directors who have responsibility for the corporate brand. And on the flip side, CMOs who are responsible for a far more fluid and complex communications landscape. However, there is an opportunity for communicators to learn from their colleagues in marketing especially around adopting a strategic and analytical approach and merge those skills with the storytelling approach that communicators are expert in. Measurement isn’t a natural focus for some communicators but this is changing. And then there’s the ownership of channels, such as social media. That can be a difficult internal debate. Communicators also need to be very well networked, to know the business and understand the challenges that other functions and colleagues, in operations, HR and IT face so, that they can step in and support them.

Alex: What skills, experiences and personal attributes do clients ask for?

Kate: This varies based on the business leader and the industry they’re in. There’s a real variance in what the ideal communications leader looks like based on the business, the organization and what the CEO is looking to do.

There are general trends, however. Internal communications and engagement has moved up the CEO’s agenda. And many business leaders are looking for a strong, integrated in-house approach featuring the full complement of skills communications, public affairs, sustainability and internal communications that can work across multiple markets.

What I’d add is that business leaders want a communications person who has good judgment, who can offer strong counsel in a crisis, who understands the business, is a good leader and who can make a meaningful contribution to the business whilst building a strong communications team. There is a long list!

Alex: How should a communicator assess their abilities and look to get ahead?

Kate: Firstly, we want to understand what you have done in your career and how you did it. The context of the challenge, the a-b journey. People in communications can change sectors and the ability to adapt to different cultures and industries is highly valued. We are also interested in your leadership and management capability. How have you developed your team, what lessons have you learned and what challenges have you faced. Who you are as a person and what motivates you is really important to understand. Some firms will use psychometrics within a process to help understand how people will fit in and behave in contrast to others. And there’s the interview process which can be multifaceted, in order to get different viewpoints.

Alex: What’s your one piece of advice to communicators in terms of what they should do to help their career prospects?

Kate: Challenge yourself, don’t be afraid of changing sectors. Ask to do different things, ask for more responsibility, to be seconded to a different country, or have the opportunity to work on a new project. Know your strengths and areas for development and work on them. Network. Most importantly enjoy what you do. And of course, get to know headhunters!