Comms directors: the new corporate linchpins

Online activism and a need to squeeze more impact from budgets mean comms directors are spending more time advising colleagues in other departments. Claire Murphy reports on the results of the eighth annual PRWeek/Brands2Life Comms Directors Survey.

Earlier this year a baby was born, in somewhat speedy fashion, on the back seat of a car. Not so unusual maybe. What made the episode rather more note­worthy (and earned the tale coverage in the Daily Mail) was that little Lyla May Zafira Stokes ended up being named after the Vauxhall people carrier in which she entered the world.

The route by which Baby Stokes’ unusual middle name came to be splashed all over the press is a good example of what Vauxhall director of comms Denis Chick describes as his team’s evolving role as the "big ears"of the company; roving around looking for stories that his colleagues in other departments might otherwise miss.

In this case, the story came to light as a result of Chick putting in place a more formalised relationship with dealership staff, who keep in touch with customers. Chick’s staffer encouraged the dealership to offer Lyla’s father an upgrade on his old Zafira, giving an extra angle to the story and a nice photo opportunity. It cost the company around £2,000 and delivered valuable reputational benefits to the auto firm.

Integration of marketing messages has been talked about for decades. But this year, according to the results of our latest Comms Directors Survey, comms teams are spending much more time collaborating with other teams, cultivating relationships and developing joint projects with colleagues right across their businesses.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that they are spending much more time working collaboratively with their relatively natural bedfellows in marketing, sales and customer service teams (see ‘Becoming everybody’s friend’). But the networks are also being extended on a more regular basis with operations, legal, finance and HR.

Comms teams are able to advise their colleagues across the business, suggesting operational changes that could result in coverage – or deflect unwanted publicity. As Chick observes: "People on the front lines of our business wouldn’t necessarily think like a tabloid journalist; why should they? But if we are talking to them often enough, we can unearth those stories."

There is a sense among some of the most proactive comms directors that their identity is morphing into something akin to an internal consultant, using their skills to act as a catalyst internally to meet external challenges.

This year, one of the biggest of those externally derived challenges has been the growth of online activism. The knowledge that activists can use social media to put an organisation under a substantial reputational threat in a matter of hours has meant that comms professionals are now welcomed with open arms into departments that they might not have been as close to 12 months ago.

Guy Corbet, managing director, corporate and brand at Brands2Life, believes that increasing corporate governance, demands for transparency and the rise of consumer activism are all forcing businesses to behave and communicate differently: "Communications is now bringing together different functions within the business to ensure that what they say they are doing reflects the reality of what they are doing. In other words, the increase in  consumer activism is now forcing businesses to tell a better story and for those who do it well reputation is much more than skin deep.

"Social and digital are also changing the rules, forcing corporations to plan more and put in place resources to ensure they are more agile."

This is a lesson that has arrived swiftly at the door of many companies. "We moved into crisis mode," says the director of comms at a multinational company that found itself quite firmly under the social media spotlight in the past year. "That does tend to break down barriers [between departments].

"I was liaising with HR and the police over employee protection issues, and with legal and finance to help draft statements. In the months afterwards, we set up regular meetings between us all to stay updated and I got a real sense that the crisis had crystallised the value of comms for my colleagues."

He adds: "Comms took the lead in that ‘gold command’ structure [the name given to crisis teams in public sector organisations] and our influence was upweighted in the wake of it. This was a very high risk situation and we were able to bring some semblance of control to an impossible situation by virtue of being able to get lines into the media within 30 minutes of the story hitting social media."

One of the upshots of these new relationships has been that this comms director has been spending more time training his colleagues in legal – not just in how to deal with the media but in how to get their messages across to other departments.

"We are now like internal consultants, pulled into a whole variety of meetings we might not have been in before. Our ability is to see the big picture; to point out how something will look to the outside world when our colleagues might be getting bogged down in the detail."

But while new relationships are blossoming bet­ween departments, the path of true communication can often benefit from acknowledging and working with the differences between people types.

At serviced office provider Regus, group comms director Andrew Brown has been working closely with group investor relations director Wayne Gerry to make the case to investors for the expansion of the business. They know that both their traditional audiences pick up information destined for each other and so it makes sense to co-ordinate their financial statements with their media relations. 

"In a nutshell," observes Brown, "comms people are creative and good at words, while investor relations people are good at the detail, the numbers. We’ve accepted that and while I can point out where certain financial statements might be misinterpreted, he can provide me with the detail I need to get it right. An open and honest dialogue involving an exchange of insights is key."

Bringing internal comms into the fold

In last year's Comms Directors Survey only 12 per cent of comms directors said they were satisfied that their comms activities were sufficiently integrated with their internal comms work. This year's survey (see graph below) shows a very different picture, with 71 per cent of directors saying that they jointly planned their internal and external comms either all the time or very often.

This drawing together of comms is reflected at Vauxhall within its apprentices programme. Young apprentices are encouraged to deliver talks to Vauxhall employees and local schoolchildren about their work, helping to underline the corporate strategy of being the 'employer of choice'.

Business advisory firm Grant Thornton has adopted the corporate positioning 'An instinct for growth'. The company has now mirrored this in its internal comms by launching Spilling the Beans – a blog on its website written and edited by its own trainees.

"I have believed for some time that having a single comms function and approach for internal and external messages is essential," says Olivia Gadd, comms director at Grant Thornton UK. "First, if your people hear one story from the organisation and another in the 'real world' what does it say to them? Second, as social media grow, control of the messages about your organisation is harder and influence is the key. "Our biggest and most powerful channel is our own people as they go about their jobs and they network on- and offline. Our aim is that they tell our story in an authentic and personal way that complements and lends credence to our corporate comms.'

Working together to respond to activists

  • We're much more joined up globally between comms (PR, social), legal and finance as a consequence of the need for increased corporate transparency - 20%
  • We're a little more joined up globally between comms (PR, social), legal and finance as a consequence of the need for increased corporate transparency - 25%
  • We're joined up locally between comms, legal and finance but could do more globally - 18%
  • We're working on a more integrated approach so that we are more co-ordinated - 13%
  • We know it is a potential issue but we haven't addressed it properly yet - 7%
  • We don't think it is an issue - 17%

(Base: 100; source: Vanson Bourne)

Becoming everybody’s friend

Marketing     81%
Sales     59%
Customer service     59%
HR     53%
Distribution/channel/retail     43%
IT and web     40%
Legal   27%
Finance     27%
Other (CEO; comms; operations; strategy) 4%
 % of comms directors providing  support to other departments (Base: 100; source: Vanson Bourne)  

For more detail on the results of the 2013 PRWeek/Brands2Life Comms Directors Survey, go to

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