Mathis to communicators: Speak up when you see something wrong

The communications chief at Standard & Poor's discussed how her organization uses social media and thought leadership, and how it speaks to a wider audience than just investors and bankers.

NEW YORK: It is "critically important" that communicators have "the guts and knowledge" to speak up when they see things happening at their organizations that need to be changed, according to Catherine Mathis, SVP of marketing and communications at Standard & Poor’s.

"Ultimately, organizations are going to rise or fall based on the reputations and the behavior of all of us," Mathis said Tuesday at the PRWeek Conference in New York.

The former New York Times Co. communications leader discussed how the financial services rating agency has used thought leadership to align its business to a greater purpose and rebuild its reputation following the financial crisis.

"Tomorrow’s headlines are being written today. At an organization, the seeds of whatever crisis are there. The way people behave today and tomorrow matters a great deal," she explained.

Mathis added that the global financial crisis taught S&P to think about its audience more holistically.

"When we talk about our social purpose, we think about how the insights we bring to the market not only benefit our investors, but a wider audience," she said.  That group includes lawmakers, think tanks, academics, and its own employees.

Because public trust in financial institutions is low, S&P has focused on educating its audience and the wider public about the role of capital markets and what ratings agencies are. It has also worked to differentiate itself from competitors.

One way it does this is thought leadership, leveraging its 1,400 analysts around the world and economists to talk about topics that are not only relevant to investors, but this broader audience. For example, it has created thought leadership initiatives about US income inequality and the economic consequences of it.

Following the financial crisis, S&P has increased its use of social media as a channel for distributing thought leadership, as well. For example, it knew in advance that President Barack Obama would discuss infrastructure during a State of the Union Address, so it tweeted about its own report on the subject during the speech, gaining 200 followers in 90 minutes.

"Social media is a whole different world in a regulated industry, and what we have tried to do is be very creative with it," she said.

Mathis also discussed how S&P had to be cognizant of the tone and voice of its brand communications following the financial crisis.

"We have been pretty clear about saying we did not anticipate how far and how fast housing prices would decline, which is something we greatly regret. People respond to the way we present ourselves," she said. "We want to avoid coming across as harsh or arrogant in any way, shape, or form."

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