Richard Millar, Hill & Knowlton UK - Connect with the customer

Corporate communicators must engage the customer directly if they want to drive reputation.

At the centre of every modern, relevant, successful business, you will find the customer. Without a satisfied customer, there is no business.

Yet in every modern, relevant company I know, the chief communications officer (CCO) still often exhibits a prevailing reticence to engage with this most important constituent.

It is my belief that the new imperative for the CCO is to understand the customer with the same intimacy as his or her other key stakeholders - the media, employees, NGOs, policy makers and regulators - and, in so doing, earn the right to be considered a primary driver of reputation, not simply its manager.

Driven by web 2.0, the old silos that defined the roles of chief marketing officer (CMO) and CCO are breaking down. The neat delineation that saw the CMO responsible for promotion and the CCO for reputation management is gone.

At a human level, this translates into battles between marketing and communications for budget, for access to the boardroom and the ear of the CEO.

As long as marketers best understand the customer, the high ground is theirs, the inevitable consequence of the communicator's abdication of responsibility for this audience.

But consumers are establishing a new relationship with brands and corporations. In a recent Ipsos Mori poll, one in three consumers now claim to have made the decision not to buy from a specific company because of negative word of mouth.

And there is evidence that the CCO connected to the consumer becomes a business and reputation driver. In Marks & Spencer's How We Do Business Report 2009, Sir Stuart Rose credits Plan A with differentiating its business, driving sales and improving efficiency. As he puts it: 'Not only is this the right thing to do, it also makes complete business sense.' One of Plan A's architects, Flic Howard-Allen, has recently rejoined H&K to preach this mantra.

So, how should modern communicators seek to strengthen relationships with their organisation's customers?

Firstly, invest in customer insights. In the marketing domain, little is done without research to gain the best insight; research to drive the best creative; research to validate the messaging; research to find the best channel, and research to identify the impact on the consumer.

Secondly, they should also create direct conversations with consumers and customers. The effectiveness of PR in creating conversations in this world of 'continual partial attention' is now an accepted marketing truth. In this way, the CCO will earn an immediate invitation to the top table of integrated marketing.

Thirdly, communicators trying to improve their pipeline to customers should better measure the impact of communication on reputation and performance. CMOs are measured on hard commercial metrics - sales, margin, customer profitability, to name a few.

But lazily measuring the role of the CCO against 'positive message' metrics is not good enough. The CCO must look to measure the correlation between reputation and customer preference, sales and the financial impact of reputation on a company's valuation.

Like it or not, the recession is having one excellent impact: it is forcing all disciplines to focus on ROI. The convergence of brand and reputation will accelerate this. The customer sits at the centre of this change and corporate communicators need to recognise this new face in their midst, understand it and engage the customer directly.

This will provide the catalyst to change the role of the CCO from gatekeeper/guardian to reputation driver.

Views in brief

- Which company has produced the most relevant and resonant corporate responsibility work over the past year?

EDF's 'save today save tomorrow' programme.

- How would you advise that the Royal Bank of Scotland tries to repair its reputation?

By demonstrating that it is a bank for the people, not its executives.

- How are you advising clients to pursue a sustainability agenda this year?

It makes good business sense - recognise the opportunity to save money in a difficult economic environment.

Richard Millar is CEO of Hill & Knowlton UK

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