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Why has the PR sector's desire to have more board-level representation got precisely - nowhere?

The CIPR has recently released some research which found that half of the boards at Britain's biggest public companies don't have any comms professionals on them, nor in their executive leadership teams (ELTs). Compared to a similar analysis completed the year before, there has been basically no progress in changing this dynamic whatsoever. It’s also a stark contrast with the influence of HR, which the research found is present on 84 of the FTSE 100 boards or ELTs.

No progress

This is despite the fact that we - as an industry - have been talking about this for years, and that reputational issues continue rocket up the corporate business agenda. Despite years of debate, we have gotten exactly… nowhere. What on earth is going on here, and what needs to be done about it? There are multiple factors at play, but primarily I think it comes down to two stark realities: historic perceptions of the importance reputational issues, as well as current perceptions of comms and PR professionals themselves.

Reputation matters

When it comes to board-level perceptions of reputational issues, the story that the data tells isn't always flattering. We undertook a survey five years ago of a group of non-executive directors (in partnership with the Non-Executive Directors Association), and at that time belief was widespread that reputation is an output (i.e. a consequence of business strategy and operations) rather than an integral part of strategy and operations that can be managed in-and-of-itself. In fact, the overall importance of corporate reputation ranked below issues such as HR and talent, governance and broader risk management - only ranking above CSR and stakeholder management.

Given that, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that it hasn't really gotten a proper seat at the table, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also a mistake for us to be left out. In fact, the NEDs we surveyed also said that they anticipated that reputational issues would increase in their prominence and get more board time and attention.

Time to act

I firmly believe that our industry needs to take a dose of its own medicine (in terms of our own reputation management) and focus on more stridently challenging perceptions that reputation professionals do not have the ‘commercial nous’ to operate at board level. On the contrary, the commercial leaders of many well-run and fast-growing PR agencies would give professionals from pretty much any other industry a real run for their money in terms of business savvy. Many of the rest, however, need to step it up a notch in this area - and that’s regardless of whether you’re in-house or external.

What you can do

How can that be done? Here are a few ideas for comms pros to take a bigger step forward in the fight to get to the top table:

  • Build connections with - and tap into the knowledge, experience and network of - your business’s board members and particularly its non-executive directors, whose role (like comms) is to bring an outside (stakeholder) perspective into the organisation and its decision-making
  • Take ownership for, or at least be visibly involved in, an initiative or project that is really commercial first, and comms and reputation second. Anything which directly leads to new products or services coming to market, or adds to either the top or bottom line, does wonders toward shifting perceptions from just being a “cost” to being a strategic player
  • Pursue a charity trustee role (or a non-executive role for a small business) yourself, including the up-skilling required to do so effectively - there is no better way to get and test the skills required to operate at board level
  • Consider pursuing further education and training in an area outside of communications, such as a MBA - they are still widely recognised and respected in business, and there are relatively few comms professionals who have them

Fundamentally, reputation needs to be seen as inherently ingrained with the board agenda, and its advisors need to be around the table. To do so, we as an industry must put a real priority on pushing the boundaries of our own reputation management to become equally renowned for our “business acumen” as our communications or media prowess.

Article written by Scott Addison head of the corporate practice at B2B communications firm Infinite Global

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