CommsTech: Unlocking PR’s potential

Top industry minds recently convened to discuss how technology is holistically changing the way the discipline is practiced and perceived.

Roundtable participants included (top row, l-r) O'Leary, Cockfield, Cohen and Day; (middle row, l-r) Fernandez, Hughes, Jenkins and Kerins; (bottom row, l-r) Sheil, Temple and moderator PRWeek's Steve Barrett

-Errol Cockfield, SVP of comms, MSNBC
-Joe Cohen, chief marketing and comms officer, AXIS
-Lauren Day, CCO, Prudential
-Mike Fernandez, SVP and CCO, Enbridge
-William Hughes, CCO, Pitney Bowes
-Dustee Jenkins, head of global comms and PR, Spotify
-Ray Kerins, SVP, head of comms and government relations, Bayer
-Jim O’Leary, global corporate chair, Edelman
-Eileen Sheil, VP of comms, Medtronic
-Jennifer Temple, CCO, HPE
-Moderator: Steve Barrett, VP/editorial director, PRWeek

“Agility is the new stability.” With those words, Edelman global corporate chair Jim O’Leary kicked off this virtual roundtable, moderated by PRWeek VP, editorial director Steve Barrett, in which the opportunities and challenges with CommsTech were discussed.

In his comments, O’Leary also captured a main reason why, earlier this fall, his agency unveiled its CommsTech Solutions offering.

“The demands on comms teams have probably never been greater,” he continued. The same can be said for “comms’ opportunity to have a broader, more material impact than ever before; to shift the function from a cost center to a value creator.”

O’Leary went on to explain how technology can help PR qualitatively and quantitatively provide reputational and commercial value, which fundamentally changes not only how comms is measured, but what that measurement can show the C-suite. And as modern comms teams increasingly include data scientists and analytics experts, their ability to use these tools only grows stronger.

The timing of this roundtable is also noteworthy. In an era where so many are working remotely, everyone has had to ascend the digital learning curve more rapidly than ever. Moreover, there can be no doubt any longer that people are consuming information predominantly on digital channels. As O’Leary noted, in the past six months, tech and data-services adoption had leapfrogged six years.

This, of course, is changing the fundamental realities of the modern communications discipline. PR pros have already switched from reactive to proactive. That next step of being predictive must be taken now. In many cases, this starts by transforming how you understand and engage with all stakeholders, as well as how comms teams are set up, both within their own ranks and as part of the larger business.

The nine leaders who assembled for this exclusive discussion have a bird’s-eye view of this evolution, as they are leading it for their respective teams. Below we share their thoughts on where their brands are on the journey, as well as their sentiments on how CommsTech is changing the practice and perception of the discipline.

MSNBC's Cockfield lauds how CommsTech helps organizations better understand sentiment among their internal stakeholders.

Certain industry legends always envisioned the day when comms would be able to unequivocally prove to C-suites the bottom-line value it brought. CommsTech is expediting that day’s arrival.

-Mike Fernandez, Enbridge: Some years ago, Harold Burson said that to succeed in this business, communications needs to purposely sustain or change a perception, a behavior, or business result. You must be able to ask and/or answer the key questions of who, what, when, where and how. And data helps you better understand your audiences (the “who”), the channels they look at (the “where”), the content they consume (the “what”), the devices they use (the “how”) and the times during the day they do so (the “when”). And with the right tools, you get the right insights to move key audiences that are important to your brand.

-Bill Hughes, Pitney Bowes: About six or seven years ago at [an industry gathering, former IBM SVP of marketing and communications] Jon Iwata was asked, “If you could hire an expert in any field, who would it be?” He said, “A data analyst. Somebody who could cut through and understand analytics and behavior.” And now, especially over the last two or three years, I find myself collaborating with people who understand predictive behavior and user experience. We borrow from them a lot.

HPE's Temple underscores her team's ongoing efforts to link corporate reputation and stakeholder activity.

While technology helps communicators gauge sentiment and activity among external audiences, the impact is just as strong among internal stakeholders.

-Dustee Jenkins, Spotify: Employees are one audience we don't talk about as often as we should as communicators, but we all have recognized how important it is to bring them along this journey. COVID is the first thing I’ve ever experienced that so universally impacted every person in the world. And comms – along with the tools to amplify it – has never been more valuable to an employee than it is in this moment. Constantly hearing from leadership and getting regular updates has been critical for our team. We all need that boost of confidence.

-Errol Cockfield, MSNBC: CommsTech really helps you understand sentiment within your organization and then how that meets external pressure for the C-suite to stand up on some issue – whether it be climate change, race, or some other matter where business hasn't had to take a stand before. It’s crucial now, though, because employees are saying, “You absolutely have to stand up if I'm going to continue to work here.”

-Eileen Sheil, Medtronic: I joined Medtronic just as COVID hit the United States in early March. The division I work for makes hospital ventilators, so technology played a key role for us in business and in communications. We were able to innovate in real time to allow healthcare workers to interface with our ventilators without having to enter a patient’s room as an example. We also were able to quickly open source one of our ventilators to get immediate assistance to increase production with partner organizations. Medtronic has 90,000 employees around the globe – many of whom make life-saving equipment that directly helps patients suffering from COVID. Technology became essential in many aspects of our business. Being a part of that was pretty phenomenal.

CommsTech is helping "shift the function from a cost center to a value creator," notes Edelman's O'Leary.

From its relationship with marketing to its ever-growing focus on purpose, comms can use technology to more definitively link its activity and impact to that of the overall business.

-Lauren Day, Prudential: Why can't marketing be a client of some of the unique intelligence that communications provides? Marketing is focused on needs, communications is focused on issues. Issues inform needs and issues are what communications specialize in. Marketing has deep insights into customers. It has proprietary information – a lot of behavioral data. And comms looks at not only the customer, but the relationship between that customer to other stakeholders.

-Ray Kerins, Bayer: We literally have farmers on the tractors who are engaging in technology. But which technology are they using and how are we going to get to them? And this is opposed to the general consumer who is maybe purchasing Bayer aspirin or a specialist medicine such as oncology or women's health. Technology, broadly, has to be on the cutting edge – and it’s the same with CommsTech. We must always be adjusting to stay on that cutting edge.

-Jennifer Temple, HPE: B-to-b tech can often fall into the trap of thinking that the only thing to measure is customer needs and a brand’s efficacy in meeting those needs. While customer satisfaction and loyalty are indeed critically important metrics, CommsTech helps us get much more than that. My team has been really deliberate about tracking the relationship between corporate reputation and stakeholders’ willingness to do certain things. How willing are they to invest in our stock? To recommend us? To advocate on our behalf? To grow their careers with us? To do business with us in the next three to four years?

-Joe Cohen, AXIS: With CommsTech we're able to better pinpoint the issues that matter to our core stakeholders and understand, in real time, how our actions are being perceived. For example, AXIS took a big stand on climate change. When you're making and taking big bets on where to take a stand from an advocacy standpoint, CommsTech can bring significant value. In addition, one of the big areas of opportunity is having tighter alignment between marketing and communications. The two functions are combined within AXIS and we’re working off many of the same tools and dashboards. We're all sharing notes and looking for patterns across the data. As such, we're able to provide better insights and show the totality of our approach.

Thanks to Edelman for sponsoring this event.

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