We need to know our numbers, not just words

Moving up the corporate food chain means PR professionals must take a wider view of the business world.

Ian Wright: "Our new involvement in day-to-day decisions demands a deep understanding of our business."
Ian Wright: "Our new involvement in day-to-day decisions demands a deep understanding of our business."

Over the past decade a great advance in our business has been the growing importance of reputation. Today, it is difficult to imagine any major organisation that does not actively manage its reputation. In a very short space of time we have seen the growth of sophisticated reputation management programmes and techniques.

Through identification and targeting of specific stakeholder groups and the development of a whole raft of ways to measure the impact of our messaging, there has been a major shift in the potential for us to deliver decisive value for our employers or our clients.

With that value comes much greater influence. In major quoted companies just about every key commercial decision or programme is now assessed for the reputational risk or opportunity it carries. That’s good news for those of us who manage reputation. None of that changes the need for great content – the stories we tell about the businesses and brands we represent are still at the heart of what we do.

Our new involvement in day-to-day decisions demands a deep understanding of our business or brand so that the stories we tell are underpinned by a robust fact base. This is most important in the area of financial performance and commercial strategy. I just hope that we, as a group of practitioners, are ready for the responsibilities that our newly won position brings. We must be much more committed to ensure that all of our people are financially literate and commercially savvy – that they have the same facility with numbers that we demand of them with words.

Andrew Grant, one of our most respected boardroom advisers, has written in these pages about the vital need for us to step up. So do those who study the talent trends. In Spencer Stuart’s study of the role of corporate affairs directors, A Seat at the Table, Jonathan Harper and Camilla Morrisby point to the requirement for "a strong business brain and a contribution beyond our own sphere of operation". Amanda Fone, managing partner of F1 Recruitment, calls for far better training in the basics of financial management: "With greater financial literacy PR professionals will be more confident about measurement and ROI, areas never far from the finance and commercial directors’ thoughts. It is never too early to learn."

I recall a meeting early in my time at Diageo. A question to our CFO elicited the response: "We’ll pick that up in the P11 roll-up". I was the senior person in another meeting 24 hours later when the same question was asked. Silence. So I said: "I think you’ll find that we pick that up in the P11 roll-up." Word spread about how quickly I had mastered the company’s financials. If they had but known.

Bluffing won’t cut it now. If we are to take our contribution to our businesses still further we need to have the deepest possible understanding of the detailed mechanics of their financial performance. Anything else is selling ourselves short.

Ian Wright is corporate relations director at Diageo

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