-Matt Anchin, CCO, Consumer Reports
-Chris Breslin, VP of comms, Voya Financial
-Joe Cohen, CCO, Axis
-Keiran Fagan, VP, comms, CVS Health
-Erin Grant, director of PR and comms, Freshly
-Matt Hutchison, SVP, corporate comms, Forbes
-Meredith Klein, director of PR, acquired and incubated brands, Walmart.com
-Alexandra Trower, EVP, global comms, The Estée Lauder Companies
-Eric Koefoot, president and CEO, PublicRelay
-Darren Sleeger, SVP, strategic partnerships, PublicRelay
Moderator: Gideon Fidelzeid, managing editor, PRWeek
The role of the communicator is unique in an organization. From the perspectives he or she brings to the table to the challenges faced in a bottom-line-driven business world, today’s PR pro touches every facet of the business.
In addition to the commonly recognized responsibilities, such as media relations, reputation management, and crisis control, the job description also includes mind-reader (read: knowing what the C-suite really wants even if they don’t always articulate it), HR counselor (read: representative to and of employees), and so much more.
PRWeek was fortunate to be a fly on the wall as a distinguished group of in-house comms leaders stepped away from their 24-7-365 jobs to talk candidly about the evolution of the role. Below we share highlights of the conversation – in their own words.
•••••A UNIQUE ATTRIBUTE COMMS BRINGS TO THE TABLE
Kieran Fagan (CVS Health): The type of listening we do as communicators. Listening to the C-suite so business decisions are made with a full understanding of what to expect. Listening to consumers to better the chances they purchase your offering.
Meredith Klein (Walmart.com): Perspective on the impact a business decision will have both internally and externally.
Matt Hutchison (Forbes): Being in the best position to be the change agent within the organization. We’re on the frontlines of brand perception. We soak up information and data from all facets of the business, so we can relay that into actionable insights for the C-suite.
Erin Grant (Freshly): Bringing a human element to the C-suite. The ability to make the brand feel more authentic to who it is so that the message delivered resonates better with the audience.
Alexandra Trower (The Estée Lauder Companies): For communications to be done well, a big piece is telling the truth to power.
Eric Koefoot (PublicRelay): In a business world being populated more and more by Millennials and Gen Z, who demand transparency, telling truth to power is more crucial than ever.
Freshly's Erin Grant (l) noted the difference between being data driven and data conscious.
•••••BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO C-SUITE RELEVANCE
Joe Cohen (Axis): The perception that PR can be defined as a non-revenue generating function. We bring value as a business solution – and can demonstrate that now.
Chris Breslin (Voya Financial): Being able to focus and prioritize so that everything we do enables us to be the business partners that help drive a company’s agenda forward.
Matt Anchin (Consumer Reports): Communications has a dual role of being both strategist and tactician all at once. We must think near term and long term.
Matt Hutchison (Forbes): We must be able to paint a picture of where the brand needs to go as an organization, be able to lay the path forward for how we’re going to get there, and then get all of the stakeholders aligned behind that.
Meredith Klein (Walmart.com): Preparing for what might not be a great business story and making sure the C-suite understands the full situation.
Erin Grant (Freshly): Explaining to the C-suite that just because you’re excited about something as an organization does not mean it’s going to resonate with the broader audience.
•••••UNDERSTANDING WHAT THE C-SUITE REALLY WANTS
Joe Cohen (Axis): The bottom line is generating revenue, but it’s more than that. Part of what we need to do is show how we’re going to be a business partner in solving the challenges facing the business and in advancing the business’ core priorities.
Alexandra Trower (The Estée Lauder Companies): We’re businesspeople whose trade is communications. So we bring the same level of value as supply chain, finance, legal, HR, and R&D. The C-suite wants to see that from our teams.
Matt Hutchison (Forbes): We do two newsletters a day. We begin the day with an industry newsletter that covers what is happening in the sector and with our peers. At the end of the day, we produce a newsletter that goes to all our employees. We’ve been doing that for about a year. It has created such goodwill within the company. It has helped position comms as a business leader because we can easily spot what we might be missing as a company and as an employer – and we can share that with management.
Chris Breslin (Voya Financial): You must understand how the company makes money, what its challenges are, where it’s trying to grow, and in some cases where it’s trying to shrink. You must be able to have that business conversation with leaders.
Joe Cohen (Axis): Anytime I hear someone in the profession say, "I went into this field because I don’t like math," that’s one of the worst things you could say. It immediately erodes your credibility with CEOs, CFOs, people who live and die by the numbers.
Matt Anchin (Consumer Reports): Many in comms still have journalistic roots – and that remains so helpful to our roles. Journalists have the mindset to interrogate whatever is in front of them. In the comms role, if you can find the right way to interrogate the business, the strategy, the brand positioning, that brings a very different perspective that goes back to our journalistic core. This helps us – and, in turn, the C-suite – see the weaknesses before anybody else does and then figure out how to proceed. Comms can get out in front of things because of its ability to effectively interrogate and know what questions to ask.
Meredith Klein (Walmart.com): PR can prove its value to the C-suite by going back to brand trust – a facet of the business it shepherds. If you are real, you can be relatable. If you’re relatable, you can build trust. If you built trust, you earn loyalty. Once you have loyal customers, that contributes ultimately to your bottom line.
PublicRelay CEO Eric Koefoot (c) addresses the roundtable participants.
•••••QUANTIFYING YOUR REPUTATION
Matt Anchin (Consumer Reports): With the content you produce, there have always been three dimensions to consider. One is volume. One is velocity, which is how often are we seeing spikes in media coverage. One is variety how often are we getting to a diverse set of media. More recently, we’ve added a fourth dimension: engagement. Is there activity around it? That is what makes the other three have value. And that is the evolution of how we evaluate reputation and, in turn, what we need to focus on in our jobs.
Alexandra Trower (The Estée Lauder Companies): I’ve stopped turning myself into a pretzel to give numbers that show why we need to exist. The most important conversation is to sit with your CEO and ask, "What does success look like to you? What are the three things I can do to have you feel that this is successful?
Erin Grant (Freshly): There’s a difference between being data driven and data conscious. Let your data help inform and identify opportunities in your business from a comms perspective, but don’t let it be the sole driver of why you do something.
Joe Cohen (Axis): We’ll look at our direct competitors and, of course, we’ll be conscious of how we measure against them when it comes to best practices. But we also look outside our competitor set to other industries.
There’s so much good work happening across the profession. As communicators we should be challenging ourselves to expand our thinking and cherry pick some of the best practices that we’re seeing. That’s how we’re able to advance the business in ways that may not be obvious to some of our partners from business leadership.
Erin Grant (Freshly): You want to establish yourself as a brand that people feel resonates with their life beyond just the sole product they’re buying from you. You want your brand purpose and brand mission to resonate through all parts of that business. That is what creates such an undying loyalty that consumers can’t seem to walk away from.
Meredith Klein (Walmart.com): One thing we all take pride in is starting the conversation. Oftentimes, if you’re watching every move your competition makes you’re on defense or playing catch-up. You tend to be joining the conversations. If you’re conscious of competition, but it doesn’t consume you, you can play offense. You can lead with what you as a business think is important. You’re the one starting or sparking the conversation.
•••••HEARING THE EMPLOYEE VOICE
Kieran Fagan (CVS Health): There are a couple ways of looking at employees and employee communication. One is focusing on the employee and their role inside the company. What is the company for them? What is their commitment to the company? What are the benefits?
Then there’s the employee and their role out in the world as a representative of the brand.
Traditional employee comms has always been very good with the internal matters. However, there is now such fluidity between internal and external communications. Employees have a huge role to play for the brand both internally and externally. They’re part of the world. They are often the brand face for customers. They communicate that way and wish to be communicated to that way.
Alexandra Trower (The Estée Lauder Companies): For employees, the time when they’re not working, when they’re not at the office, is so important to them. So really understanding them in a more holistic, human, and empathetic way is so vital.
The best internal communications is not just top down. You’ve really got to have a bottom-up approach where employees have platforms to be able to really say what they want and converse with each other.
Chris Breslin (Voya Financial): Internal is really external now. In fact, our employees are part of our value proposition. As such, the culture you set at your organization – an element in which comms plays such a key role – is crucial to the business. And one way communications helps establish that is to ensure executives understand the importance of not only telling employees what they are doing, but why. The why is vital.
Joe Cohen (Axis): More and more millennials are in the workforce, with Gen Z increasingly entering, too. There are reams of data showing that employees today have bigger expectations from employers than they’ve had in the past as it relates to transparency, CSR, diversity and inclusion, and taking a stand on relevant issues. And this all presents communicators tremendous new opportunities to drive our brands in a positive direction.
Darren Sleeger (PublicRelay): Employee perception about their companies changes so quickly. So now, employee communications moves almost at the speed of media, which is fascinating.
Matt Hutchison (Forbes): Communicators all have listening tools, but we’re also like the Doppler. We’re constantly pinging what are people saying? What’s the marketplace saying about us? How do we synthesize that information and use that in a way that’s very constructive that compels and moves leaders in the right direction?