Sunday, February 1, 2015

“Authentic Advocacy” Report from Arthur W. Page Society is the Real Deal

Last Fall, the Arthur W. Page Society published a report that struck to the core of what chief communications officers are charged with doing at their organizations.  Namely to engage various stakeholders in such a "way to achieve corporate objectives.”

Over two years, the Society conducted in-depth research that also involved focused interviews with the heads of communications at five companies: Cargill, Chevron, Lundbeck, Southwest Airlines and USAA.

In the end they came up with nine findings and seven recommendations for chief communicators.  Overall, it found that in a world where the individual has access to the masses in real time thanks to social and other digital media, there is much more pressure on companies to perform than to simply look and sound like the company it wants to be.  In other words, ‘walk the walk.’

Of the nine findings, I think there are two worth analyzing in some detail. 

Communications needs scope of control – While the first finding pointed to the whole corporate character issue, a given in reputation management, the second one explored the whole notion of how broad the scope the communications function should have in an organization.  The finding was that a “broader span of control aligns culture and intensifies engagement.”

Essentially this means that instead of limiting or pigeon-holing the public relations function within Marketing or even HR, it should be given parity with the major management functions and be structured to ensure that “public affairs, government relations, internal and external communications, corporate social responsibility efforts and marketing are aligned with corporate character.” This, the report, finds is a major factor in achieving stronger stakeholder engagement.

I can attest to this.  I’ve seen it every which way, and consistently, when communications is brought in late, or forced to work within, let’s say for example Marketing, it’s structurally forced to ignore all of the non-marketing dynamics that may shape the situation.  So, if a human resources issue contributes to poor customer relations and ends up hurting sales, internal protocols can get in the way of results.  A Marketing chief can be prone to avoid tension with HR and treat any drop in sales as only a marketing and sales issue.  Communicators are trained to think and work across corporate silos. 

Technology Improves Measurement – The other major finding of note for this discussion is where the Society found that, “stakeholder engagement today is a rigorous disciplined and data-driven process.”

This means that thanks to technology, it is much easier to identify, categorize, sub-categorize and target a wide range of stakeholders.  It’s easier to communicate to highly targeted audiences, and it’s now easier to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of communications.

Algorithms and analytics can be used to judge social and digital media engagement.  Companies can collect instant data that tells where and how a press release was distributed, who read it.  Newsletters distributed digitally ping back data that tells communicators which articles or graphics were visited most and by whom.  This all serves for enhanced measurement and gives public relations the ability to fine-tune future corporate communications efforts.

On the recommendation side of the coin, while all seven are important, the one recommendation I think stands out for me is one that can easily get lost in the larger discussion. 

The Power of One – The Society’s sixth recommendation is to, “recognize that scale varies depending on the nature of the stakeholder and the scope of the issue.”  What this means is that because everyone is empowered through social media and ubiquitous access to it, the ‘power of one’ can be huge.

No longer can we assume that only mass communication is the most powerful form of PR.  One tweet can go viral.

Or to put it in more pragmatic terms, one tweet about a poor customer service experience, complete with a YouTube video taken on a smart phone can be enough to mobilize the communications team at Code Red.

The same dynamics that can lead to that sort of crisis are also at play when it comes to positive engagement.  The report says it best when it recommends that communications chiefs “build shared belief and advocacy one stakeholder at a time, concentrating on those whose support is most critical.”

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