BBC journalist-turned-senior comms professional Cory Reynolds has an interesting take on how the two disciplines diverged in recent years.
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Technological advancements mean outside broadcast teams have shrunk. But comms, in its widest sense, requires more hands on deck than ever; multiple specialists working to relay a single message. Previously ‘siloed’ structures – where, for example, the press office, marketing and social media teams could, for the most part, operate separately – no longer suffice.
“What we’re catching up with is that human beings, whoever they are – whether they work for a charity, whether they’re in politics, whether they’re a customer – are picking up information from lots of different places,” says Reynolds.
“As an organisation, the consistency of that story across all those channels really matters, because not having that consistency means it doesn’t quite make sense for the person receiving it: ‘You’ve said something over here but it’s not quite the same over here.’”
Controlling the message is among Reynolds’ prime responsibilities at Biffa, the waste management company she joined last November as corporate affairs director. The new, wide-ranging role covers media and PR, brand, internal comms, investor relations, regulatory and public affairs. Reynolds, who oversees a team of 32, also joined the FTSE 250-listed firm’s executive committee.
With some understatement, Reynolds tells PRWeek via video call that she has “certainly not been unbusy”.
Since she joined Biffa it has, among many other things, made two major acquisitions (parts of the Viridor Waste Management business for about £126m, and Simply Waste Solutions for £35m) and published a ‘digital-first’ annual report and a sustainability report.
Underlying much of this is the Government’s environmental and sustainability drive. Biffa has been giving feedback to the Resources and Waste Strategy, which recently concluded its second consultation round. This outlines the Government’s long-term approach to minimising waste and reducing environmental damage. It links to the 25-year environment plan, which aims to eliminate “avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050”. For Reynolds, who joined Biffa from Southern Water, this presents a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”.
“This doesn’t come along very often, and to be in a position where we’re not only responding to consultation but proactively engaging with politicians, making sure that we’re having the right conversations and they’re listening to businesses. It really matters, because otherwise, they’re in danger of creating policies that are too theoretical and don’t actually have a bearing on reality, which is to nobody’s aim.”
Biffa has retained agencies to help with the challenges: Houston, which largely works on media and investor relations, and Portland, for political engagement. Other agencies can be brought in for specific projects.
Sustainability and environment compliance and planning fall under the corporate affairs brief at Biffa. Having comms and environmental functions under one umbrella is an important facet of Reynold’s role, and one that goes way beyond controlling the message. “[It’s] not just saying nice words about being sustainable, it’s making sure we back it up and are authentically a sustainable organisation,” she says.
“That’s critical, not just from a political stakeholder perspective, but most of the conversations I have with investors… We’ll talk about ESG, we talk about sustainability, what we’re doing, how we’re performing, how we’re aligned to the critical frameworks. It’s really, really important that we demonstrate not just our credentials as doing the right thing, but [that] we are an authentically purposeful organisation.”
Biffa will proactively communicate its actions on sustainability, from introducing electric refuse trucks to new forms of plastic recycling.
A £27.5m plastic recycling facility in Seaham
The idea is to show how the business is leading the government’s agenda – “not just laggardly saying: ‘Oh, we tick this box.’”
“That is coupled with an ask of government, and this is where going beyond just responding to consultations comes in,” she adds. “We need to make sure government is hearing businesses like Biffa to ensure they are making the right decisions around policies which enable investment in green infrastructure, enable investment in increased recycling on UK shores. There’s a very strong business case around creating more jobs for the green economy. And that happens when businesses and governments work together.”
Again, it’s a message that needs to be communicated across the board. Reynolds flags up a recent investor visit to its “state-of-the-art” recycling plant in Seaham, County Durham.
With in-person meetings less frequent during the pandemic, Reynolds points to the greater importance of digital in stakeholder management, whether with politicians, NGOs or numerous other groups. The coronavirus has “leapt us on about five years” in terms of the digital requirements, she says.
How this will evolve over the next half-decade is a key question, but one area of innovation Reynolds is keen to pursue relates to data and analytics. A brand perception audit has already been undertaken and she is keen to explore other opportunities.
“Analysis and insight really matter,” she says. “I think the days of being seen as the comms who make things look nice at the end of the project have been over for many years, but the way that we absolutely prove our heft, our impact on the business, is by using readily available data, the media from social, from doing survey work.
“Part of the remit of corporate affairs is to take that information, take that insight, whether it’s the political context, insight into the development of policy, facilitating conversations – it makes a difference to how a business operates.”
The lack of in-person networking has forced Reynolds’ team to “up our game in how we communicate”. Crucially, it has also forced the comms and public affairs agendas together.
“Writing huge long emails to politicians is not going to get you anywhere anymore,” she explains. “You need to make sure what you’re saying is engaging. You’ve done your research insofar as what they’re interested in, you’ve targeted it to the demographic – these are all tools that communications professionals have been using for a really long time, and that bringing-together of how we communicate on the PA side is probably a bit overdue, to be honest.”
It’s a mindset that dates back to Reynolds’ time at Southern Water as director of comms, brand and public affairs. “At that point, I started to form a view that you really can’t do communications without looking at public affairs.”
Her understanding of how people receive information in the digital age has deeper roots, however. The “game-changer” came in 2009 when Reynolds was editing on the BBC summaries desk during the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ – the incident in which pilot “Sully” Sullenberger safely glided then ditched a US Airways jet in the river off Manhattan after it lost all engine power due to a bird strike just after take-off.
Capt. Sullenberger returns to the cockpit months after the Hudson River landing
“Up to then, the newsgathering law within the BBC was… everything has to be double-sourced before you can publish. Within minutes of [the Hudson incident] happening, I had pictures on my desk in West London of people on the wing [of the ditched plane] in their life jackets.
“It’s one of those moments when you go: ‘Ah – that’s different, that’s changed how we gather news.’ From a comms bent – and then it’s linked to corporate affairs – being aware of how people receive information, the right channels, developing the right content, is critical.”
Reynolds was drawn to Biffa for the same reasons that attracted her to Southern Water and, before that, Brighton & Hove City Council, where she worked in senior comms roles. It’s about “the stuff of humanity”, she explains – working on projects that tangibly help human life function.
These may sound like lofty ambitions, but they are rooted in practical actions and chime with the era of corporate purpose. At Biffa, they also appear to be deliverable, especially given the range of expertise at Reynolds’ disposal.
“I’ve always been interested in things that are the fabric of society and the things that actually matter, that keep things together,” she says. “If you haven’t got waste services or waste infrastructure, or recycling infrastructure, we can’t develop properly as a society, things quickly fall apart, and that matters – for me, that matters.”