What are the skills and strategies communications professionals need when their business is committed to transparency of the highest standard? In speaking to candidates in Asia, I see them placing more and more emphasis on the responsibility they feel when advising senior management on the company's communications, both internally and externally. Companies listed on public markets take on a strict obligation to make regular disclosures of strategic information, which places them in the market spotlight and demands transparency across both corporate governance and corporate communications.
Today, businesses anticipating the end of the Covid face "fundamentally new and more complex systemic risks and opportunities," according to the World Economic Forum's white paper on Integrated Corporate Governance. The report said: "Boards must equip themselves with the information and know-how to understand and act upon the shifts that are underway and the impact that these will have on their company's performance, licence to operate and resilience."
Change on this scale has deep implications for companies' communications leaders, who are responsible for advising the CEO team on the strategy and tactics for communicating changing corporate priorities. We spoke to three Greater China corporate communications heads to gain their insights into the state of play for public companies.
Strategy and analytics rule
Pip Beasley, chief of CEO operations & corporate affairs, Prudential Corporation Asia, confirms that corporate governance and corporate communications go hand-in-hand: strategic planning and informed decisions are essential. "Formulating and owning the communications strategy in support of the business strategy is critical," she says.
To do this, the communications team needs to be "experts in synthesising data, news and information in the internal and external environment, using their judgement to feed into group executive, CEO and board to enable sound decision-making," according to the recent Asialink Winning in Asia report. As both a listed company and a markets operator, Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited agrees. Tori Cowley, group chief communications officer, says, "For your communications to support the business, you need data, insight and a thirst for knowledge about your industry and landscape."
Claire Li, executive director, communications & public affairs for Greater China at GE, stresses the demands of today's dynamic business setting: "Communicators operate in an increasingly fast-changing and complex operating environment, with 24/7 news cycles, geopolitical tensions and tightening regulatory requirements."
Beasley adds: "You're constantly reviewing and refreshing the effectiveness of not just what is said, but how it is said." This includes accounting for the real-time demands of digital and social channels, which can amplify shareholder activism or media criticism rapidly.
Know your ecosystem
Knowing what concerns the company's stakeholder ecosystem ensures communications hit the mark. "You need a big rounded view—you need to know what your customers, shareholders, competitors, the media, employees, are more all thinking and doing. Get these things right and all the rest should slot into place," explains Cowley.
But data alone isn't sufficient for creating this level of insight: communicators still need human intelligence to go with analytics. Beasley says, "Relationships still count: the ability to build and maintain a strong internal and external network, creating advocacy and building reputation."
Li sees this as an essential requirement: "Knowing how to tell a good story that resonates with your target audience remains a skill at the core of the profession." But context is everything. She adds: "This demands that communicators have a deep understanding of the macro environment, the business' dynamics and how those would impact their storytelling."
Mind your ESG&Ds
With investors increasingly insisting on comprehensive disclosure of companies' Environmental, Social and Governance and Data (ESG&D) risks, CEOs are required to pioneer a new culture within their companies. And to advise them on how to achieve this, communications leaders need to think and act ethically. Cowley says, "As one of the main conduits for translating strategy to action, communicators need to consistently demonstrate integrity in their work and empathy with their audience."
Publicly quoted status puts a heightened emphasis on this need for accuracy: regulations are precise in stipulating the required information. According to Cowley, this requires discipline "so you can ensure that you have regard for good governance, your legal and regulatory framework, and that you are operating in your shareholders' and other stakeholders' best interests". Getting this right creates long-term value for the company; failure to do so may not only result in damage to the company's share price, but also incur fines from the regulator—not to mention long-lasting reputational damage.
As the WEF Integrated Corporate Governance report states, "ESG&D risks and opportunities have rising potential to affect a company's current and future financial condition, operating performance, competitiveness and in certain cases, survival."
Despite the unprecedented economic impacts of the pandemic, companies have continued to plan for the eventual recovery. Many communications professionals have been stretched by the demands of the pandemic; for those whose businesses are accountable to investors and regulators, the post-Covid era will require them to operate at even higher levels of professionalism and resourcefulness. Finding the right people to rise to this challenge is a specialist task all of its own—I foresee a rise in demand for top-level communicators who can handle the demands of increased public disclosure requirements.
Anna Whitlam is founder and managing director at AWPeople
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