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From CCO to CMO and back again: The rebirth of corporate PR

“These are unusual times. Trust is much discussed but rarely felt, once-loved institutions have taken decisions that have undermined the core of their existence, CEOs have failed to show moral leadership and high-profile companies have collapsed. Against this backdrop it has never been more vital for companies to have a meaning beyond their bottom line; corporate PR has never been so important.” These are the words of Stephanie Bailey, managing director of corporate at communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn, that sum up a general feeling in the industry that brands have, at last, woken up to the importance of their reputations.

Positive transformation

This is no surprise, when you consider the pressures on companies these days, as Bailey explains: “In such times, when our infrastructure is weakened by continuing spending cuts, when we face challenges in investment flows and intellectual capital and when our supposed political heavyweights are caught in the trap of trivial Twitter exchanges, corporate activism can create real and effective change. Companies that stand for a purpose true to their core values and aligned to their business can instigate positive transformative steps that have immeasurable brand benefits – step forward Starbucks and IKEA. Businesses like those deliver a masterclass in flexing their emotional credibility in smartly executed campaigns that make the average consumer feel a lot better when buying flat=pack furniture and takeaway cappuccinos.

“The trick though is authenticity – get on your soapbox to spout about anything that seems disingenuous and it can all horribly backfire, leaving your crisis practitioners struggling to mop up the mess. Choosing the right people to front a campaign is also critical – this is not always about the CEO, this is not for the faint hearted and this has to be led with conviction.”

Amanda Moulson, general manager at agency Access Brand Communications London, agrees and says that we’re living in a time where businesses must play a long, sustainable and responsible game to entice customers and attract and retain key young talent, who often wear their values on their sleeve and hopes their employers will do the same.

Evolution not revolution

Moulson adds that corporate PR needs to evolve: “In the wake of Larry Fink’s famed letter, in which the head of the largest fund manager in the world pushes for ‘long-term value creation’ for all stakeholders – shareholders, employees, customers and communities alike, it becomes increasingly important for companies to show how they are going to ‘walk their talk’. A new form of creative corporate PR therefore becomes essential – as it’s communicators that are best placed to divine the most resonant proof points and carve out impactful thought leadership positions that also make good business sense.”

Client perspective

One senior communicator who is appreciated for her expertise is Renu Hanegreefs-Snehi, vice president, corporate communications, PR and reputation management at The Rezidor Hotel Group. Hanegreefs-Snehi discusses how boardrooms now rely more heavily on PR advice: “Corporate reputation grows in importance. That is not a hunch – it’s in the numbers. A recent report by the Reputation Institute has found that consumers most value a brand’s products and services (19.7%), closely followed by its governance (17.2%) and citizenship (15.8%).

“Today, the boardroom understands that corporate reputation is undeniably linked to the company’s bottom line. The reputation of a business and its CEO has become an essential element to corporate survival. Having a good reputation makes a business strong: it drives consumer preference and support in times of crisis or controversy, it defines the value of the organisation in the marketplace. Building and protecting their company's corporate reputation is key to every organisation. It is not 'just' the job of the head of PR; it is the job of the entire C-suite, starting with the top gun.

“I believe that PR and reputation management professionals can and should be the guardians of consistency and authenticity. A good corporate reputation goes beyond 'saying'. It is about consistency between 'what you do', 'what you say' and 'how others see you.' PR people have a meaningful role to play in this balancing act. And I am happy to be able to do my part.”

The bottom line

Making more money is always the driver of any business, and Tom Lawless, director at communications firm Headland Consultancy, discusses how communicating how you care about key issues is going to improve profitability: “Today, corporate comms has considerable influence on the customer, with study after study showing that people’s buying decisions are affected by whether or not a brand has taken a stance on an issue they care about. Stance being the key word.

“Those issues almost always fall in the domain of corporate comms – making products healthier, cutting plastic use, reducing environmental impacts. Essentially playing a part in fixing social problems. Disruptive challengers have traditionally been more attuned to that reality, but big business has caught up. See Iceland’s recent commitment on plastics, or Vodafone Australia’s work on cancer research.”

This obviously presents a big opportunity for corporate comms teams to set the tone of all their organisation’s communications, but Lawless points out how it’s a false distinction to draw a line between corporate comms and marketing: “They ultimately have the same objective and one can’t work without the other. Marketing is only effective if corporate comms has helped set the right context for it. A comms strategy attuned to commercial needs and social expectations will not just grow and protect reputation, but is now fundamental to brand growth.”

Crisis management

As well as showing how it cares, it also increases a brand’s value if it reacts well in a crisis. Julia Ruane, head of PR and content at social media risk experts Crisp Thinking, says: “The boardroom is interested in value. It used to be that PR’s ‘value’ was on getting the organisation’s message out to the world, boosting the brand, being seen and being known. These days, a major part of PR’s value comes not from the positive glow of proactive publicity, but rather the ability to be reactive to crises, measured by how quickly we can deal with issues that (mostly) broadside us. In today’s connected world it’s the PR team that is listening to what everyone is saying about the brand. They need to be able to spot that tweet, that public complaint or that online campaign that can spiral out so quickly that you’ve barely time to say ‘get the crisis management plan ready’.

“But it’s more than that. We are hyper-connected now. We work with influencers, we have global supply chains and multiple connections with consumers. Each of these represents a point where something can go wrong. A brand ambassador who films the wrong thing (cough…Logan Paul…cough), a supplier whose ethical practices aren’t up to scratch, a consumer who’s been on the wrong end of bad customer service.”

Ruane agrees with Lawless that it is not helpful to separate PR from marketing: “Where PR adds value is by being able to find those issues quickly and then making sure the right people in the right teams are activated, which means that PR teams today need to be linked in to marketing, advertising, customer service, HR. Even legal and security teams. And that is what brings PR to the boardroom – the value of our knowledge.”

Case study


Louise Vaughan, group managing director at agency Acceleris and Limelight PR, discusses how Oxfam’s current plight highlights the importance of knowing how to handle a scandal:Reputation management is nothing new. In fact it’s the cornerstone to PR but in the age of digitalised media and fast flowing content, it’s more important now than ever.

“Corporate reputation is big business – the ongoing scandal at Oxfam epitomises how a globally respected brand can be brought to its knees by a poorly managed corporate campaign. Oxfam’s lack of transparency in its handling of an alleged sexual misconduct case against one of its aid workers in Haiti has seen its deputy chief executive step down. Already well over 1,000 people have cancelled their direct debit payments to the charity and influencers such as Minnie Driver and Desmond Tutu have stood down as ambassadors.”

Despite the growing needs for brands to defend their reputations, some believe firms are still undervaluing the importance of their communications. Xanthe Vaughan Williams, co-founder of agency Fourth Day PR, says that big business is not reacting fast enough to today’s pressures: “We recently carried out a survey to find out what marketers value most about public relations. Given the vast changes in media and the multiplication of activities that now fall under the remit of PR, from copywriting to social media, we weren’t sure what to expect. In fact, ‘Brand Reputation’ was chosen by 81% of respondents – significantly more than any other aspect of PR given as an option, including its value in creating sales leads and its use as a recruitment tool.

“For us, this confirms that things haven’t changed as much as one might expect. There are more channels out there through which audiences connect with brands, but this increases rather than decreases the need to preserve reputation. We’re all aware that the days when a major lapse in customer service could be dealt with privately are long gone; social media ensures that bad news spreads fast. The likes of Target, TalkTalk and Yahoo can all testify to the impact that a security breach can have on a brand.”

Vaughan Williams concludes that there are still CEOs who are disconnected from PR advisers, and they must be educated: “With so much risk for a brand to be tainted, whether by design or by accident, organisations need help. It’s no good having a PR team managing relationships with the media if the customer service desk isn’t giving out the same message. Corporate communications must be managed from the top.”

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