Communications has never been so essential to business performance. But communicators are still not trusted at the same level as other C-suite leaders. It’s time that changes.
For several decades, the communications function has been maturing. Where once was a more straightforward playbook for connecting to key audiences – place an ad to reach customers, draft a press release to signal investors, write a memo to update employees, the 24-hour news cycle, information overload and a near-constant state of crisis has resulted in the need for a more strategic and nuanced approach.
And communications executives have been rising to the challenge. A poll conducted by The Weber Shandwick Collective in August of 2021 – roughly a year and a half into the global pandemic – revealed that at companies where communications were prioritized, employees felt significantly more loyal to their organization than those at companies who were not prioritizing communications (87% vs. 50%). Similarly, 80% of consumers preferred to make purchases from companies who were actively communicating policies that promoted employee health and safety.
Despite this track record of success, a lack of trust in the very leaders best equipped to manage company reputation has been stubbornly persistent. Additional research from United Minds and KRC Research shows While 77% of C-suite leaders consider communications and public relations as an area of focus for the company, behind only attracting and retaining talent (93%), managing the adoption of new technologies (90%) and addressing the impacts of inflation (91%), only 24% believe their company can deliver well in this area.
This lack of trust is creating serious business risk.
Communication leaders are generally very aligned to stakeholder expectations, according to insights gathered in partnership with USC Annenberg. This is especially true when it comes to perceptions of societal issues – an area where their C-suite peers are currently underestimating the importance to employees, customers and investors (even more so the Gen Z and Millennial members of these groups). What’s more, these leaders are not comfortable engaging around the issues that stakeholders believe are important. And only 27% feel comfortable addressing even one of the following topics: social inequities, climate change, geopolitical or domestic social issues.
A misalignment that is possibly leading to missteps.
Importance of ESG standards to stakeholder perceptions of a company
Companies who are discounting the expert guidance of communications’ leaders to engage – thoughtfully – around some more difficult topics are not realizing the benefits of doing so. According to findings from TWSC’s most recent public perceptions poll, employee satisfaction is much higher at companies where leadership speaks up: 72% vs. 39%. And consumers are making purchasing decisions based on company positions: 36% have chosen to “buycott,” intentionally buying products or services to show support.
This doesn’t mean that communications leaders believe that every issue should be taken on publicly and bullishly. To the contrary, these leaders recognize that over the next five years, their job will become increasingly balanced between building reputation and protecting it.
Time spent protecting versus building reputation in the next five years
The stakes are high.
TWSC’s recent public perceptions poll also showed that even though 71% of U.S. adults believe companies should take action to address social issues, 45% see categorizing a company as “woke” as criticism. And 27% of employees who work at companies that have been called “woke” are fearful that their company will become the target of aggression and harassment.
This makes it even more important to trust the experts when it comes to preserving reputation while navigating complex, multi-stakeholder issues – or increasingly, the state of business.
So, how do communications leaders prove their value to C-suite peers and drive business success? Here are four ways:
- Shared intelligence: Every business must make trade-offs when it comes to prioritizing stakeholders, but in a model where responsibility for stakeholder engagement is divided across different teams, these decisions are often made in a vacuum. An integrated communication function offers a 360-degree view of stakeholders and a single point of responsibility in coordinating engagement versus piecing together competing priorities from across the organization.
- Shared narratives: A clear articulation of the business strategy, tied to company values, is critical to how a company is perceived by its stakeholders – and it requires nuances for each community. Communicators’ advanced understanding of stakeholder dynamics is critical to tailoring a narrative effectively and avoiding inconsistencies can lead to misunderstandings and frustration.
- Coordinated execution: Most business priorities require support from different communities at different times. Strategic communications leaders should be empowered to pull the right lever at the right time in a coordinated fashion across shared platforms to drive advocacy at scale.
- Shared accountability: Accountability shouldn’t be for the metrics of the individual function like reputation, employee engagement or policy wins. It’s for the business. Strategic alignment within communications functions means sharing the same goals while also maintaining discrete responsibility for the areas of impact necessary to achieve them.
It’s ironic, right? Communicators – the best positioned protectors of reputation – are suffering from reputational issues. It’s time these business strategists get the full support from their executive peers. Because they’re equipped to do the job.