It’s not going to come as any big surprise to most of you that the lingering pandemic, combined with growing geopolitical tensions, never-ending technological disruption, and an accelerating climate crisis has created all sorts of opportunities (opportunities!) for communicators.
There has never been a time in history where business leaders have been forced to confront this kind of complexity, nor had to deal with conflicting messages they’ve heard their entire careers about not communicating values to communicating values.
They must navigate all of these challenges while creating resilient companies that can thrive in any economic, social, political, or technological environment—and allow them to drive forward with values and purpose.
While it really does provide us a great opportunity for 2022 and beyond, there isn’t an established playbook to help us navigate changing stakeholder expectations while advancing the business interests of our companies—or that of our clients.
A new report from Edelman, The Future of Corporate Communications, seeks to change that by understanding what senior communicators are experiencing on the front lines.
Their research reveals that the role of the communicator has forever changed, with new expectations and rules of engagement.
The message from nearly 250 of the world’s most senior communicators is clear: to meet the challenge of this moment, the communications function must advance from operating as a transactional cost center delivering on a communications agenda to being an indispensable partner generating measurable business value.
The report has some notable insights that will help each and every one of you plan for career growth for the rest of this year and into the next.
Insights from The Future of the Corporate Communications Report
The Future of the Corporate Communicator report has some notable insights.
- The role of communications has become more materially important to every leader—from CEOs and boards of directors to everyone in the C-suite, including CFOs.
- The modern corporate communications function is agile, multidisciplinary, and insights-driven.
- CommsTech will usher in a new era and communicators will use it to deliver quantifiable value to the business, which means, y’all, you can’t be using spreadsheets to track results.
- The increased focus on the workplace, workforce, and well-being of employees isn’t a pandemic fad. We’ve seen this represented in The Great Resignation and it’s not going to slow down anytime soon.
- Expectations around social issues have shifted the leadership agenda, and stakeholders are holding companies accountable.
- A modern organizational structure only gets you so far.
- Communicators are increasingly acting as change agents, enabling ongoing transformation.
- The lines between communications and marketing continue to blur, creating both challenges and opportunities.
- In an increasingly complex and activist multi-stakeholder world, the corporate brand matters now more than ever.
What a glorious time to be alive—and work in this industry!
I won’t go through all nine of the insights—you can download the report to read them all for yourself and begin to build your 2022 playbook from them—but I will choose my four favorites.
The Communicator Is More Important Today
Let’s start with the first one—the role of the communicator has become more materially important to every leader. In 2014, only 34% of chief communications officers reported to the CEO. Today that number is nearly half—46%.
However, significant variability exists in the perception of communications as a business driver depending on industry and organizational maturity.
We see this in the work we do with clients. They want to know how ALL of the work we do is translating directly to sales. We are constantly talking about the importance of the brand and its awareness—and how challenging it is to directly translate those efforts to revenue.
That is an uphill battle that isn’t going away anytime soon.
But there are some things you can do:
- Recognize that we are all operating in an era where things we didn’t use to be able to measure can be done so now. That doesn’t mean we can measure everything, but it does mean we’re expected to try. The number of conversations I have about attribution models sometimes causes me to take out my stress on my bicycle, but that’s what today’s leaders expect. Those of us who seize on this opportunity—and figure out how to effectively measure the things that can truly be measured—will succeed.
- I’ve long said that if we as an industry can figure out how to become an investment versus an expense, we’ll have won. Well, here is your opportunity! Ground all of your goals into one objective: how to become a value creator. To solidify that role, you’ll need tangible proof of how you’re driving revenue.
- One of my favorite humans on earth is Benita Fitzgerald Mosley. She’s an Olympic Gold Medal winner and she’s on the leadership team of one of our clients. She often talks about how people cannot succeed alone. Even if you participate in a solo sport, such as tennis or track and field, you still need a team of people to help you succeed. The same goes for the communications leader. Your team needs to include the traditional skills, along with data scientists, content creators, community builders, email marketers, growth leaders, and creatives. That’s the only way you’ll be able to meet the new demands of communications.
CommsTech Will Usher In a New Era
The second insight I like is that you need a tech stack to be successful. Not spreadsheets. Not a whiteboard that has your prospects listed on it (that’s a real thing one of our clients used to do until I freaked out on them about it). But actual software that will make you more strategic and effective.
Nearly three-fourths of respondents reported that CommsTech is a top area of investment for the coming year, while more than half reported increased use of communications technology. The challenge, though, is nearly half report only a baseline measurement of media impressions (oy vey, my friends, oy vey), and only 30% are mapping revenue growth back to their core activities.
All to say, we still have a long way to go to catch up with our marketing brethren when it comes to technology.
There are a few things you can begin to think about for 2022:
- There is no way you can truly report results in a meaningful way without technology. Digital tools, data, analytic capabilities, and technology can not only help you sharpen your message and better reach your audience, it helps you prove the value of your work. It helps you make decisions based on data (not just instinct) and it helps you tie every little tactic to business strategy and results. I like to say to my team, “I have really great instinct about what works and what doesn’t, but I’d really rather the data tell us if I’m right or wrong. What is it telling you?’
- Start small. You don’t have to do everything at once. For one client, we are doing some A/B testing of very small things, such as headlines in news releases and subject lines in emails. We then use that data to learn and expand. Choose one or two low-risk areas where more effective use of data, analytics, and technology could meaningfully improve the way you either make decisions or report results.
- Chip Griffin and I talk about this a lot, a lot on The Agency Leadership podcast. You have to choose a tool that will be easily adopted by your team. If you choose a tool based on someone else’s recommendation and no one wants to use it, it won’t be effective. Choose the right software that will allow you to manage and derive compelling insights and outcomes because your team is willing to adopt it.
- Just like a chief marketing officer needs to understand how to manage a multidisciplinary team, so do you. Leading a modern corporate communications function built on data requires new leadership skills. Embracing technology also means leading new types of talent, collaboration, information sharing, and strategic outcomes. It’s scary because, in many cases, it’s not what we’re good at. But if you want to continue to embrace the opportunity being placed in front of you, it’s a necessity.
Create a Modern Organizational Structure
One of the biggest shifts I’ve seen internally with our clients in the past 20 or so months is how they’ve restructured their marketing and communications departments. In some cases, I’ve been personally asked to come in and audit the structure, their processes, and the gaps they have in resources.
Just like in the Edelman report, we would see three types of structures in the before times: centralized, matrixed, and decentralized. There is a case to be made for each of them, but my opinion (and the report backs this up) is that centralized structures tend to have a better understanding of the broader business and are keyed into all departments in a way that keeps them top-of-mind versus an afterthought.
As you think about creating a modern organizational structure, there are some things to consider:
- You may have your eyes on a centralized structure, but organizational design is almost always a pendulum shift. The current trend is toward centralization, but organizations are constantly being arranged and re-arranged. Be willing to re-jigger things if and when the needs arise.
- To do that, you want to start with a clear vision and direction. We have one client whose team was operating in a decentralized structure and it worked…until the pandemic. But then with all the turmoil we experienced, along with having to immediately go remote, it no longer worked. We’ve been working hard for the past year to centralize everything, but more, to make sure that the communications team is included in meetings as things are decided, and not after.
- No matter which model you use, focus on governance, process, and accountability. If you do that, it won’t matter which structure you have—and it will enable you to be flexible as things continue to evolve.
The Marketing and Comms Lines Continue to Blur
I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the marketing and communications lines continue to blur. Consumers don’t know if what you’re doing is marketing or communications or sales; neither do executives.
BUT! Organizational leaders are under immense pressure to take a stand on various social issues on behalf of the broader enterprise. However a consumer or other stakeholder sees it, that is all driven by communications, and so is defining a platform that not only articulates what you stand for but, more importantly, drives trust and engagement.
Think about these things as you prepare for your 2022 plans:
- Trust has to sit at the center of the corporate brand because it is the currency that creates lasting relationships, gives organizations permission to innovate, and ultimately drives growth.
- The corporate brand must be brought to life through consistent storytelling that showcases human faces and voices—and what values you do stand for as an organization.
- It’s your job to take ownership of how people experience the brand. It’s with your lens that trust and engagement are built. Without you in the room, it will all fall on external deaf ears.
And there you have it! The four most important insights from this report, according to me. If you’d like your own copy of the report—and to go through the rest of their insights, you can download it here.