A glimpse into the future for tomorrow's leaders

The transition into social business is the single largest opportunity to come along in decades for communications professionals. There are big opportunities for communications executives to get more deeply involved in driving measurable business outcomes.

Just last week I had the privilege of hosting a group of about 35 corporate communications executives who are part of the Arthur Page Society's Future Leaders program. They traveled to the University of Texas-Austin as part of a two-year professional development program run by the Society.

The focus of the two-day workshop was digital and social media. I was struck – once again – at how radically and fundamentally digital is changing almost every aspect of our enterprises. It's changing the role of the communications function. It's changing the skill sets required of communications professionals.

Our two days together were segmented into five modules, recognizing the transformation that is taking place. I thought I'd share with you a quick synopsis and key learnings that came out of each module.

•Module #1: The future. We heard from the executive director of SXSW Interactive and saw two great case studies of how USAA and IBM communications pros are making the transition from social media to social business.

The key learning: the transition into social business is the single largest opportunity to come along in decades for communications professionals. From the impact communications pros have in generating positive, measurable word of mouth to the enablement role we can play in partnering with the CEO, R&D, HR, IT, and other functions to drive great business ideas from within and outside the enterprise, there are big opportunities for communications executives to get more deeply involved in driving measurable business outcomes.

•Module #2: Internal engagement. We heard terrific employee case studies from GE, FedEx, Southwest, and Kaiser Permanente. A professor from the University of Texas spoke to the group about the changing workforce.

The key learning: the blurring between internal and external is now so blurry it's almost invisible. Why? First, today's younger workforce simply lives in a collaborative, transparent, social environment. It's de rigueur. And they fully expect the same of their work environment.

Second, as companies try to figure out how they can best protect and enhance their reputations, they are recognizing that the social power of their workforce is enormous. Activating that workforce as “brand ambassadors” is arguably the single greatest opportunity companies have in reputation management. That is a blurring.

•Module #3: Crisis management. We did a crisis simulation of a global company that played out over two days.

Key learnings: Real-time, orchestrated access to data today (e.g. with state-of-the-art listening command centers) is essential because now virtually everyone has access to real-time data, so you better be out in front of your own situation. As always, good crisis management comes down to the capacity to have sound judgment with incomplete data – only now in a wildly compressed time frame.

•Module #4: Content. The power of storytelling and the need to create great content suitable for multiple platforms was the focus of this module. We ran a group exercise on the financial services industry, the challenges that industry faces, and how effective storytelling can be a key part of reputation rehabilitation.

A key learning: the need for communications pros to inject more emotion into their companies' stories. Communications executives are typically most comfortable approaching stories with a journalistic bent: fact-based, key messages, third-party credibility, news-reporting/documentary-style video. All those are good, but we also must access skills that historically have resided more comfortably in marketing: staying on a single message, story creation, and the powerful use of human emotion.

Module #5: Metrics. We looked at performance dashboards from companies such as USAA, Dell, Xylem, Southwest, and FedEx.

Key learnings: As you might suspect, there is no silver bullet. However, greater access to data now means we can build increasingly sophisticated models and approaches to measurement that are much more on target than they've been in the past. An organizational implication: More and more companies are hiring full-time data analytics people within their communications function.

Long story short: digital is changing everything.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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