The Hallmark of a Successful Corporate Communications Executive: Developing and Promoting a Resonant Message
The role of the senior communications executive has always been expansive, laden with diverse responsibilities that range from the strategic to the tactical, from high-level messaging to executive speech writing for presidents and CEOs, from the development of general communications strategies to the creation of step-by-step crisis-management scenarios. This array of duties can vary according to industry or business sector and according to whether it’s public or private, non-profit or for-profit, domestic or global. However, the primary responsibility of an organization’s top communications executive is consistent: to ensure that, whomever the stakeholder and intended audience, the company’s branding and messaging reflect its strategy and support its associated goals and objectives. This was a tall order even back in the days of print media and traditional public relations. Today, amid the rising tide of digital and social media, it is nearly epic in stature.
Keeping the Flame Alive — Crafting & Packaging a Story that Resonates Broadly
Perhaps the foremost responsibility of a senior corporate communications executive or director of communications is to develop the baseline story, make it compelling, and keep it aligned with an evolving company strategy – a simple, straightforward task conceptually, but a somewhat more complicated one in practice. This is because a story is typically most effective when it addresses what matters to its audience and, in the case of most, the audiences are multiple and fragmented. For example, in a typical publicly held corporate entity, messaging must appeal to constituencies ranging from the board of directors, investment analysts, and shareholders to the business media, trade press, customers, employees and the community. If the company in question is in the aerospace, pharmaceutical, or another highly regulated industry or 501(c)3 in education, healthcare or foodservice, the cast of stakeholders that must be addressed can further include regulatory agencies, standards committees, watchdog groups, and trade associations.
The Communications Strategy — A Map for Navigating the Tower of Babel
To execute on the above responsibility effectively, the leader of the communications function must be adept and comfortable at interacting with and taking input and direction from the company’s C-suite or the non-profit’s president or executive director. He or she must also possess a good understanding of the organization’s operating model, competitive landscape, and attendant challenges and opportunities, and can synthesize this information into a strategy that encompasses all the outbound communications. This may entail presentations at live meetings, social media or the dissemination of information via digital or traditional media. Finally, because unexpected events – such as an injured employee or accident, for example — can wreak havoc with even the most meticulously planned communications schedule, the corporate communications vice president or director must be comfortable changing direction quickly and re-prioritizing as circumstances require.
This means that, like someone putting together a puzzle, the individual who leads communications must be skilled at evaluating and integrating input from internal stakeholders such as marketing, sales, and research and development, and external stakeholders like customers, investors, and the larger community. More importantly, he or she must be capable of using this input to inform a comprehensive message that can be tailored into nuanced “sub-messages” that resonate uniquely with each group and yet remain faithful to the meaning and spirit of the over-arching general message. For instance, in a corporate setting; a company’s investors will be interested in different components, e.g., RONA (return on net assets), CAGR (compound annual growth rate), and GPM (gross profit margin) than will its customers, who are likely to pay more attention to the company’s market leadership and its reputation for quality and service. Yet, in both cases, at the highest level, what each constituency is most interested in is the company’s reputation – whether it is good or bad, whether credible or suspect, and, most importantly, whether or not it is aligned with their own objectives and self-interest. It is the job of the corporate communications executive to formulate a communications strategy that safeguards this reputation and to continue to develop it as the company’s evolving business strategy requires and business conditions dictate.
From the Strategic to the Tactical & Back
Of all the senior communications leaders — marketing communications executives, advertising and public relations vice presidents, and internal communications or social media directors — perhaps none must be conversant in as many areas as the vice president of communications or communications executive director. Like the marketing communications executive, he or she must be familiar with and capable of evaluating the merits of pay-per-click (PPC) and print advertising, virtual trade shows and live conferences, public relations and social media, to name only a few communications vehicles and sub-disciplines. However, the communications executive’s list of required competencies often also includes internal communications, government affairs, media relation, community relations, branding, crisis management, and investor relations, among others. Typically, these functions report directly to the communications leader or, if not, he or she usually sits on their governance committees or provides them with some other sort of formal oversight and counsel. What’s more, frequently the communications executive serves as the final arbiter of language for outbound president or CEO communications, such as speeches and presentations, and is called upon to write them outright or to check them for alignment with the organization’s sanctioned strategy, prevailing voice, and approved perspective.
Does We Really Need a Corporate Communications Executive?
The answer is that your company’s size and industry matter. For example, privately held small- to mid-sized manufacturing companies — whose primary constituencies are usually limited to customers, third-party channel partners, and employees — can probably get by with a marketing communications leader to address the first two sets of stakeholders and simply leave employee communications to human resources. In contrast, a public company of comparable size will more than likely have a greater variety of stakeholders to consider, such as the financial press, equity analysts, and institutional and individual investors. On the flip side, a local government or non-profit organization may require a community relations expert who can ensure the company’s mission is well understood by those who can benefit from its services most.
Many other factors might also dictate a company’s need for a corporate communications executive. For example, companies in highly regulated business sectors like the automotive and life sciences industries are likely to need someone to oversee government affairs and, because of the public safety issues associated with their products and services, might also need an executive-level manager who is responsible for crisis management. Finally, non-profits, such as hospitals and universities, frequently have corporate communications executives who, in addition to being responsible for the organization’s messaging and branding, are also responsible for or work with the fundraising and development functions, or, in the case of educational institutions, the alumni relations area.
Finding the Best Corporate Communications Executive for Your Company
Identifying and recruiting the ideal communications executive is no different than searching for any other senior leader, except that the range of the desired skill set — from the strategic to the tactical, from business acumen to creative ability — is perhaps broader than that required of leaders in more specialized functions like finance or operations. Moreover, the position often requires hands-on capability, particularly in writing, and, such applied tactical ability is something that many other sorts of executives leave behind when their careers become focused on strategy and operations management. Finally, since the communications executive must usually depend on other executives for input regarding positioning and strategy as well as communicate this information to the various internal and external stakeholders, he or she must have a collaborative, team-oriented work style and also be a good cultural and personal fit in general.
Because the position’s requirements are so eclectic, the search for the perfect communications executive can be both an exhaustive and exhausting process. It isn’t easy to find senior communicators with the requisite organizational understanding, business competence, strategic aptitude, and technical competence needed to effectively address diverse stakeholder segments. Such an individual must have extensive experience, preferably with an organization in the same industry and with the same sort of fragmented stakeholder base as the hiring organization.
This is why many companies and organizations searching for corporate communications leaders turn to executive search firms with a solid track record of filling such positions. Such a search consultancy will typically have access to large databases of passive candidates and will also likely employ competency-based behavioral testing interviewing to check a candidate’s management style and likelihood of fitting in culturally. Some even conduct skills evaluations and assessments, which is important for a position where proficiency in writing and other applied communications skills is of great importance. While retaining the services of an executive a search firm might be marginally more expensive than relying on internal talent acquisition resources, having access to a larger candidate pool and outsourcing the initial rounds of the interview process usually more than makes up for the added cost. Moreover, the importance of internal and external communication’s mission might in and of itself justify the expenditure. After all, communications is about creating a positive perception of the organization, and we all know that perception is reality.
This is the latest entry in a series of articles that examines the characteristics and experience that employers should expect to find in candidates for executive and senior leadership positions in mission-critical functions such as corporate communications, marketing communications, business development, digital marketing, product marketing, loyalty marketing, direct marketing, and public relations, as well as sales and other types of channel management.
For comments or for more information, please contact:
Customer and prospect contact: Ronald S. Torch, Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and President, the Torch Group, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.torchgroup.com, 440.519.1822 x101. Media contact: Ronald-Stéphane Gilbért, Senior Consultant & Global Managing Director, Gilbért, Flossmann & Zhang Worldwide, email@example.com, www.globalmarcomm.com, 216.816.4947
- Posted by Ilana Katz
- On October 18, 2017
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