EDITORIAL: Expect seismic shift in corporate comms

Executive recruiters aren't having an easy time at the moment. The recruitment merry-go-round had slowed before September 11, and all but ground to a halt afterwards. Some feel it is turning again now, but they are hardly matching the Fed's "first half could be gangbusters" talk-it-up optimism.

Executive recruiters aren't having an easy time at the moment. The recruitment merry-go-round had slowed before September 11, and all but ground to a halt afterwards. Some feel it is turning again now, but they are hardly matching the Fed's "first half could be gangbusters" talk-it-up optimism.

The one thing keeping recruiters going through this gloomy spell is a steady trickle of demand for senior corporate communications pros who boast a genuine in-depth knowledge of both PR and IR. Some corporations, such as Home Depot or New York Times Company, are amalgamating those disciplines within their ranks, so that the top communications exec - whether he or she is a CCO, an SVP or a VP - is responsible for both functions.

As this year's annual meetings season begins, expect a simultaneous surge in demand for pros that can fill such a role.

Why? Because this coming season will give CEOs firsthand experience of the seismic shift that has taken place in the way that corporations must communicate to be successful.

It will no longer suffice to simply have your auditor sitting quietly in the corner at an annual meeting, say knowledgeable pundits such as Richard Torrenzano of the Torrenzano Group. In the wake of Enron, meeting attendees - who look certain to be more vocal and inquisitive than ever before - will want to know who they are, what firm they work for, and what that firm does for the corporation beyond auditing. They will also, perhaps for the first time, have a real keen interest in the choice of accounting methodology. Compensation practices and legal counsels may also come under greater scrutiny from shareholders and regulators.

It will no longer be enough to have an IR department that writes results statements, puts together the annual report, and cozies up to a few key analysts. The communicators responsible for IR will have to speak not only to thousands of private and institutional investors, but also to employees - in a language they understand - to ensure them that their 401(k) plans and stock holdings are not going to let them down. Communicating simultaneously and effectively with these audiences will require expertise in employee relations, media relations and investor relations - not just one of the three.

IR and communications pros will also have to advise on more than just how to disclose financial information, but on exactly what should be disclosed relative to demands for more in-depth financial reporting from regulatory agencies, the investment community, and individuals. They will have to show an awareness of the benefits - and drawbacks - of greater transparency.

Communicators' stock will rise among peers and masters if they have experience and understanding into regulators and regulatory issues. The SEC will be swarming all over independent auditors in the coming months, and will likely continue to examine investment banks that own stock, make recommendations on those stocks, and issue stricter guidelines on pro forma reporting.

Dismiss Enron as something that didn't happen to your company, or a passing media obsession, at your peril. Employees, shareholders, regulators, and journalists are all looking for the next Enron. Equally, however, a good reputation has never been a bigger asset. All of which means that top IR or PR pros - or, better still, pros who excel at both - will be more in demand than ever. Do you qualify?

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