Too often these days, I hear senior-level corporate communicators and agency folks lamenting the fact that they don't have a seat at the executive table - that critical decisions regarding new acquisitions, company-wide layoffs, or moves of similar importance are made behind closed doors without input from them on the communications ramifications. Or that when a crisis occurs, they're told by the legal department to keep their mouths shut.
Well, you know what? I'm not surprised. Corporate communications executives haven't earned the right. Plain and simple. They're not proactive, versatile, or creative enough.
First, let's tackle proactive: Corporate communicators are not proactive enough within their own companies. Too often, communicators are so focused on getting out the message that they don't stop to make sure the message hasn't changed. When was the last time, for example, that PR talked to sales and asked about customer feedback? When was the last time PR took that customer feedback, positive and negative, into account to evaluate existing branding strategies and, if necessary, develop new ones? PR plans should never be carved in stone. Better to write them in sand, and sweep away the elements that fail to reflect the changing perceptions of customers and media.
And while we're talking about communicating within, when was the last time the PR and sales departments made sure they were communicating the same message? It's simple, but so essential. When stock prices are driven by quarterly revenue reports, it's crucial that both departments communicate a unified message to customers and the media.
Second, communicators have not done enough to stay ahead of the changes in our industry; many are not versatile enough. Corporate communication is not the simple job it used to be.
Once upon a time, you could call a press conference, tell your story, and be assured plenty of headlines. But that was before the marketplace was saturated with competition, before the media was jaded, and before PR went global.
Now, if you don't know how to simultaneously manage the messages in Tokyo, London, and the Midwest, you'd better move over. And if you do know how to manage the messages, you'd better make sure the people at the top of the totem pole know just how good you are.
If there's one time when it's essential to your livelihood that you play politics, it's now, in this environment, with our economy the way it is.
When you do a good job and you know it, you need to keep yourself and your name front and center. Don't wait to start cheering for yourself when your company is ready to lay off workers. The groundwork has to be done long before that.
Finally, corporate communicators are not creative enough. But here, the blame is not entirely theirs. As a society, we have been conditioned since kindergarten to do as our peers do - dress the same, talk the same, play the same, and buy the same. The lesson is reinforced through adulthood, so by the time we reach the workplace, all we've done is trade our Nikes for Nine Wests and our Gap jeans for Gucci. Lessons learned in our youth - blend in and you're cool, stand out and you're a freak - are but a cringe away.
So who are communicators going to write for? The mainstream, of course, where the scourge of mediocrity originates. Why bother with new messages if the same-old-same-old still works? Why, for the sake of standing out, would anyone in their right mind risk failure and embarrassment? They'd have to be freakish, right?
Wrong! After all, corporate communicators barter in the trade of new ideas. Words and concepts are our currency. If we don't come up with interesting new messages, and soon, there's no reason for our customers to continue believing in our products. And there will be no reason for our employers to keep us.
It's no secret that when the economy suffers, PR, marketing, and advertising executives are the first to go. That's why I wasn't surprised to hear from a colleague who attended a recent meeting of the Arthur W. Page Society that the majority of attendees - high-level corporate communicators, mind you - were out of work.
And it's why I'm not heartened by the results of PR Week's Corporate Survey for 2002. The survey may show an increase in the number of PR execs with a direct line to the powers that be (51% this year, over 42% last year), but fewer people responded to the survey, which begs a critical question: Are fewer high-level corporate communicators employed this year?
I'm going to go out on a limb, and say yes. And, I think the answer will remain yes until corporate communicators become more proactive than reactive, and more interested in new messages than recycled old ones. Then and only then will they prove to their boards, presidents, and CEOs that they deserve a seat at the executive table.
- Steven Blinn is president and CEO of NY-based BlinnPR, a public relations agency specializing in financial services, healthcare, b-to-b, and technology.