We are no longer in control. This is the tragic reality of the world in every sphere of human activity. The statement takes on even more dramatic overtones when we consider nature. Just think about it – mankind has achieved more in the last 100 years than it has since man differentiated himself from animals by standing up on two legs. We conquered space and communication, we have begun to take flying around the world for granted, we even like to believe we have conquered our prejudices. And yet, in a very real sense we have lost control of reality.
No matter what Rio or Manila or Bonn agree on or they don’t, climate change is upon us. Outcomes of scientific conferences matter not one bit to glaciers that continue to melt and recede faster than they ever have in history. The epitome of capitalism, the magical world of global finance, is reduced to government bailouts. Once the world’s largest company – General Motors – is jokingly called Government Motors with a 60 per cent ownership by the US government as part of its rescue package. Karl Marx may well be having the last laugh. It’s not all negative. For the most part, business has evolved from being the archetypical fat man with a cigar grinding underfoot the poor worker to one of supposed benevolence pained by ideological opposition. Businesses today are quick to self-regulate lest elected governments come down hard on them. Safety standards are phenomenally higher than what they were even 25 years ago. So, what has happened to the constituent functions of business?
If one leaves aside new emerging functions like IT, and not consider unchanging functions like legal or sales, and focus for a moment on functions like HR and finance and marketing, we see a huge evolution. HR – that used to be the Personnel Department when I started working 25 years ago – evolved from being a champion of employees to being a developer of human capital, and is now on its way to being a function that manages change in organisations as companies evolve to satisfy changing customer needs. Finance, which used to be primarily an accounting function, moved up the scale to being a business support by helping define monetary value propositions, both internally and externally. Today, it is well on its way to being the custodian of monetary value to stakeholders of the business. Marketing (when it wasn’t being confused for a glorified sales department) moved from being a builder of brand image to being a demand generator. It is evolving in its role and is headed clearly towards a new frontier in being an innovation driver to deliver a customer value proposition faster than competition.
So, where does that leave the corporate communications function, which came into existence almost exactly a hundred years ago when DuPont first formalised this function as a department in 1907? From being a purely wine, woman and song business in a male-dominated world of business, when I started working 25 years it was a liaison function for the company. Corporate communications facilitated at best the interfaces for management. Rarely, if ever, were corporate communications managers allowed a seat at the table.
But the changes in the last 25 years have been dramatic: from booking long distance calls to instant messenger and SMS, from yesterday’s news reaching you in today’s papers to TV channels fighting each other for the ‘now’ news and helping you understand implications for tomorrow. The biggest consequence of such change is the fact that the market and other stakeholders of any business are all forming opinions without even trying. These opinions can severely impact the way customers buy products or communities view license to operate. It impacts how loyal employees are or how long investors choose to leave their money invested in shares. In this maelstrom, doing more of the same doesn’t make sense for any business. And so, the corporate communications function has evolved to having a seat at the table and being a strategic planner of positioning. But this is clearly not enough. How can one plan positioning in a prospects mind when that mind is out of one’s control?
For too long practitioners of the corporate communications function have grumbled that image is 10 per cent talk and 90 per cent activity. It has been an effective way to escape lack of performance issues when media stories offended management sensibilities. No longer will this be possible if corporate communications managers want to continue to have a seat at the table in a new world. Remember, this new world of business has new definitions for HR finance and marketing. So, why not the corporate communications function?
The corporate communications function needs to move from positioning, either in a supporting or strategic role, to one of defining the company. The values that a company represents are increasingly going to drive stakeholder behaviour. Helping define these values and giving them substance will be a primary role for the corporate communications function. Delivery channels will need to evolve as well. At a personal level, most practitioners of corporate communications are adept at, if not masters, of the art of the art of networking. They will now need to elevate this to a science and start building networks, both informal and formal, for their companies, where one audience segment can champion a company’s cause with another. In other words, bring dynamism to the concept of third party endorsements. Instead of merely changing internal-external perceptions, corporate communications will have to start impacting the internal reality of a company in terms of behaviours and performance.
From creating the space in which business can operate, corporate communications must now actually impact the way business operates. That is the only way corporate communications will continue to have seat at the table of the real world of business.
(Deepak Mukarji heads corporate affairs at the Shell Group of Companies in India. These are his personal views.)