The Headhunter's View

There was a time in the 1990s when I would be regularly approached by a particular type of PR consultant. Exhausted by pitching for new business, looking after clients and running an agency, they wanted to move to an in-house PR role. This role was perceived as Nirvana - a comfortable day job and the opportunity to 'be the client.'

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Since then, there have been two major shifts in the market. First the term ‘PR’ has been replaced by ‘communications’. There number of companies calling themselves ‘PR’ consultancies is decreasing. Most position themselves as integrated communications agencies and in certain quarters the term PR is becoming obsolete. 

Secondly, forward thinking organisations have long since moved on from viewing communications as a nice-to-have press office function. ‘Communications’ is increasingly a board-led appointment, integral to the vision of the organisation and its reputation. Being appointed as a Communications Director is the destination career move for an ambitious and talented high achiever. As Electric Airwaves’ Andrew Caesar-Gordon points out in the accompanying video clips, successful Communication Directors effectively become a CEO’s Chief-of-Staff.

PR can be perceived as reaching out to an audience through a clear channel, usually print or broadcast media. Integrated communications is all about engaging with your audience: starting a conversation, building a dialogue, listening as well as talking, and using a broad range of traditional and social media channels.

Sam Mercer, MD of Hopscotch Consulting highlights how the role of communications is "about leveraging positive word of mouth, about grounding everything we do in a deep knowledge of our sector and about being in tune with and responding to genuine needs. In the age of digital advocacy it’s also about ensuring that we communicate as naturally and authentically in the digital as in the real world".

At JFL we are in the fortunate position of being taken into the confidence of an organisation. It may be the CEO or HR Director looking to make an appointment. It may be a Communications Director planning to build a team or a frustrated Communications Director considering a move. We are also privy to confidential feedback from employees and from external agencies. In other, words there are times when we have 360 degree access to the key qualities of the role.

When JFL is briefed on a new search or recruitment assignment, we will be looked to for insight into the key criteria, skills and experience that are mandatory for a successful appointment. Essential to this is that the candidate will have a thorough understanding of the business and the ability to get its story right.

Guy Corbett, Corporate MD of Brands2Life, puts thus: "A good Communications Director is the conscience of the business". Unlike other board directors who may be engulfed by infrastructure, technology or sales and marketing, the Communications Director is "liberated to give the overall picture, retaining an element of independence from the business".

With storytelling in mind, when we start searching for a new Director of Communications we generally focus on five key components: Media Relations; Policy and Government Relations; Internal Communications; Financial/ Investor Relations and Marketing Communications.

It is very rare to find an individual with all five attributes and priorities vary from one organisation to another. A candidate without specialist knowledge of policy, government relations or financial/investor relations can, generally, buy this in by appointing a specialist or by hiring an external agency.

But the two seminal criteria for all candidates are the broad external and internal communications skills - the ability to communicate with and win the confidence of employees and partners as well as customers and other stakeholders. As News UK’s Guto Harri points out in his video clip, it is crucial to encourage these internal audiences to engage in telling the corporate story and to understand the brand and vision. Cliché though it may be, they are the true ambassadors of the business.

The most important element of all is the relationship with the CEO. Today, such is the importance of reputation management that the successful Communications Director will be the eyes and ears of the CEO, both within the business and externally in the market place. As the right hand of the CEO the Communications Director, partnering from time to time with the HR Director and with Marketing, you will need constant and immediate access. In practice this means a desk that is physically close to the CEO. Without immediate access and decision making, the Communications Director role will not work.

With the communications narrative in place, part of the Communications Director’s mandate is to enhance the profile and career of the CEO. As he says in his video clip, Arthur Leathley (until recently Director of Cross Government Communications), says that even if you are not on the Board, your role is about creating value for that Chief Executive. It is no surprise that one of the first priorities of a newly appointed CEO is to let go of the existing communications team and appoint a new one.

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