Communications' role should start in the boardroom

In an exclusive conversation with PRWeek Asia, AIA's Stephen Thomas talks about best practices and his thoughts on making sure a company's words line up with its actions.

Stephen Thomas group head of corporate communications for AIA Group
Stephen Thomas group head of corporate communications for AIA Group

"There is a fundamentally important role for the comms function to play when it comes to the process of running a company," says Stephen Thomas, group head of corporate communications, for AIA, a Hong Kong based insurance firm.

The company’s history has almost come full circle in its near one-hundred years of history. Started in Shanghai in 1919, it went through ownership restructures that saw it become an AIG subsidiary in the mid 20th Century and then back to an independent Asian entity about five years ago after the global financial crisis.  Its US$20 billion IPO back in 2010 remains one of the largest in history.

Scale like that puts a huge spotlight on what a company does and says and Thomas emphasizes how critical it is to "make sure that the company’s actions are consistent with its words".

That is part of what brings him to work every day. "There is no better time to be working in PR than today," he says. The door is open for communications professionals to enter the boardroom and he observes, "they just need to walk through it".   

What he lays out as an ideal is for the lead communications officer to have a seat in the boardroom in order to "be a source of value and counsel to the chief executive officer."

Years ago it may have been the case that there was significant lag between a CEOs decisions and the communication department’s involvement. That could lead to disconnects between corporate words and actions. Thomas says if a company is to build trust it has to be proactive about communication, that communication is actually part of the strategy and shouldn’t be left to the end of the chain. Things move fast with the advent of digital technology so it’s vitally important to be able to engage newly empowered and interconnected stakeholders. Companies can’t afford to have the old lag between decision makers and dissemination.

In that respect, communications then is critical to business success. Think of it in terms of the old adage that beauty is only skin deep. Perhaps there was a time where a company could try and put a nice face on its actions after the fact. But if the communications team is involved from the start, then you have a more organic process where the right corporate behavior leads to the right image.

"We have an opportunity to make a real contribution to how the business is run. So it’s not just a matter of being brought in at the end of the process and communicating one way or another about what’s going on."

One strategy Thomas advocates for building a trustworthy reputation starts with a company’s own staff. Employees can be among a brand’s strongest supporters. Companies that treat staff well and communicates in an open fashion with them have a built in front line of advocacy.

If you do things the right way with the right people, he says, good things will follow. Since adopting such an outlook, Thomas asserts, AIA has posted record earnings every year for the past four years and has shown a 100 percent increase in stock value. Whether that is an example of causation or correlation is open for debate but to Thomas’ point about the communication function being in the room when corporate decisions are made, there is certainly a connection. It’s no secret that transparency builds trust.

"Telling the AIA story is a very special opportunity, as AIA is an Asian headquartered and exclusively focused company that is also one of the largest insurance companies in the world," Thomas says. "The fact we have been in this region for almost a century but today are in a new era as an independent company listed and headquartered in Hong Kong brings with it tremendous opportunities in the context of communications and stakeholder engagement."

For other areas where communications can help drive business performance, Thomas believes leaders should be open to looking around the world and beyond their own business sector.

"There are an increasing number of Asian based companies that are building global businesses and global brands. So I would hesitate to say that we should always be looking to other regions of the world for best practice because there is some great work being done in this region but there is still scope to get external perspectives from other parts of the world."

"I am admirer of the thought leadership work being done by companies like GE," Thomas said referring to GE’s Look Ahead web site, which the global engineering company creates though a partnership with The Economist magazine.

The strategy might be best classified as content marketing, which Thomas advocates can be used to gain share of voice with stakeholders when it’s "within the parameters of developing content that is fresh and relevant to the company and its stakeholders, then it is worthwhile."

In the words of Jason Hill, GE’s media strategist, who spoke with Campaign Asia-Pacific in 2014 about Look Ahead, the site’s content is always related to GE but is not necessarily about GE in every article every day. The journalist behind the content have considerable free rein to develop stories, while drawing on GE’s knowledge base in technology and engineering to add fact and substance to the content.

Hill explained to Campaign that the editorial agenda still largely comes from GE in terms of the subject matter that the company wants to talk about. But it comes with the reporting-style guidance and sensitivity of a plugged-in media organization. In terms of a best practice, Look Ahead may be the most effective model for brand-journalism hybridization. Other companies have adopted similar tactics with varying success but for Thomas, GE’s effort stands out as one that has a lot to teach PR professionals and corporate communications leaders.  "The media outlet can help co-create the content," he says "and help distribute it."

"I’m also interested in what ANZ bank is doing in Australia with its Blue-notes platform. ANZ has hired senior journalist to go and work and effectively produce original content under the blue notes banner and distribute it to its stakeholders. Now, that’s not working with a traditional third-party media outlet; it's bringing it in-house. In this context, it’s a bank functioning like a media company."

The Bluenotes website does contain well-written perspectives on financial outlook or rate cuts, which you would expect from a bank. But it also has thought pieces from both editorial and the bank’s executive staff on subjects like gender equality or digital disruption. The trick of it (for lack of a better word) is all the Bluenotes content has a similar approach. The articles analyze topics not from the perspective of weaving in positive sales messages but simply from addressing contextual content in a thoughtful manner. A manner in fact that is almost more thoughtful than some traditional news outlets that have become ever more dependent on sensationalism and click bait to drive sales and traffic. It can be refreshing actually to read perspective on something like Myanmar’s economic transformation, for example, from a financial CEO who has his hands in the business every day, rather than from a hungry young reporter who’s has no idea how to run a bank and just needs to find a compelling angle to impress his editor. (Even a respected and well-established reporter can suffer from that problem).

The worst-case scenario that journalism on the whole faces is content that panders to the lowest common denominator. A compelling dimension of Bluenotes, or any thought-leadership style writing, is it aims higher with its audience. The context isn’t the sensationalism that traditional media often seeks; by design it’s more inspirational. That doesn’t make it news necessarily, but it can make it engaging content. And for PR, engagement is often the bottom line.

"It all provides food for thought," Thomas says, "as far as how to optimize a thought-leadership program and create content that will ultimately deliver value to the business."

And he highlights that "having a very clear objective at the beginning of the process, in terms of what that platform should deliver to the company" is one of the pillars behind it.

To do that, operations and communications leadership have to be on the same page. And that means being at the same decision-making table, every day.

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