Simultaneous evolution: Empowered communicators help businesses transform

With that long-elusive seat at the table as secure as it has ever been, comms is expanding its influence to help shape – and re-shape, as needed – the overall business. Industry leaders recently gathered to detail how.

The perception of comms has changed to the point where its influence over business transformation now goes far beyond messaging and crisis management. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

-Adam Collins, chief comms and corporate affairs officer, Molson Coors
-Ryan Cudney, US business transformation lead and Pacific Northwest GM, Edelman
-Jeff Haydock, VP of comms and public affairs, Best Buy
-Kristal Howard, director of corporate comms and media relations, Kroger
-Anna Lovely, VP of global comms, Cargill
-Sarah Meron, VP of comms, IBM

“Business transformation” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Whether it’s repositioning in the marketplace, portfolio realignment, or a foundational turnaround, comms has always been – and remains – the main conduit for getting information to every stakeholder. The last two years, though, have brought on a new appreciation and respect for the broader impact PR can have on a business – one that goes beyond messaging.

During this roundtable, a sextet of top industry minds convened to discuss the discipline’s evolving role during periods of business transformation.

And in case anyone underestimates how important a development this is, Edelman’s Ryan Cudney underscores the point with the help of two recent studies.

The first, conducted by BCG, found that nine out of 10 companies had undertaken transformations over the past decade – and yet three out of four fail.

Why? That’s where the second study, courtesy of McKinsey, comes in.

“They took a deep dive into why transformations are not successful,” explains Cudney. The reason? “They fail to shift mindsets and behaviors.”

So we’ve learned that business transformations of some kind are common. Most of them do not succeed, at least not to the ultimate level. And the main stumbling block appears to be one where comms is uniquely qualified to assist.

As this roundtable conversation continues, our participants start to specify where PR can really – and already has started to – make a difference, bringing its unique skills to bear.

Roundtable participants were (clockwise from top left): Collins, Cudney, Haydock, Meron, Lovely and Howard

Connecting dots and drawing maps

For IBM’s Sarah Meron, the role of comms, vis a vis employees, has changed dramatically.

“It used to be that comms would get handed something and it was our job to get people excited about it by creating a dialogue,” she notes. The difference now is “those dialogues are already out, across social immediately. It’s our job to close that feedback loop with management and help executives stick to a core set of messages with a much greater degree of flexibility and real-time response.”

Speaking of messages, to Jeff Haydock at Best Buy, who notes how he is spending more time with change teams than ever before, connecting the dots with multiple shareholders – in written form –  is key.

“You can have theoretical conversations for weeks,” he says, “but the moment you actually write a note of strategy or purpose for the company it becomes very real for business leaders. The role that we play is managing multiple stakeholders from a strategic perspective, a timing perspective and a gatekeeping perspective.”

Kroger’s Kristal Howard recalls how her company, for the first time ever, has recently had to navigate multiple strikes of frontline associates. And the critical role comms played in maintaining business continuity is one of which she is proud.

“We were in the unique position to talk to our employees and help them think differently about their benefits package, about us as an employer and about how they vote for certain contracts,” she explains. “When you talk about true business value, that is one leading example that’s very real and still ongoing.”

Using the analogy of a map and the ability of comms to navigate, Molson Coors’ Adam Collins suggests, “You can't just tell someone where you want to go and say, ‘Good luck!’ If you think of things like a map, your employees, customers and business partners need to know where they are today, what some of the route changes may be along the way and how they fit into all of that. The unique role we play in an organization” makes comms the perfect entity to do so.

Still, as ever, it’s a balancing act with a multi-stakeholder approach.

“The role of comms during a transformation is to think not only of how it’s going to impact employees, but customers and other partners outside the company,” advises Cargill’s Anna Lovely. “You weigh all the different possibilities of that transformation and how it might be received. If you just build it in one silo for one audience you miss out on a list of others. That's a really important piece.”

Even as comms assumes an increasingly key role, business transformation is a team sport, with all parties needing to play their positions.

“Comms is not a proxy for good leadership,” emphasizes Meron. “Nothing we push out is going to have the same impact as the C-suite and leadership embracing a new set of behaviors and, most importantly, modeling those behaviors for the organization. Just because you invite comms to the meeting doesn't mean a cultural transformation is happening.”

Shape rather than react

“In today’s moment, so many of the calls for transformation are being led from the ground up and business leaders are being forced to respond,” says Cudney.

This begs the question of how the C-suite can actively get back to shaping culture, as opposed to being influenced by it and, in turn, only being able to react.

To Lovely it means listening to what employees want. That starts with a key realization: “The pace of change will never be slower than it is today,” she notes. “Your [team] has to be okay with change. You have to help build that resiliency.”

“One of the challenges we have is unlocking how to surface our internal dialogue,” Lovely reveals. “In response, we've implemented governance around how we're going to approach different issues on different topics in order to anticipate that a little bit more so that we're not always reactive.”

Calling out the radioactive elephant in the room, Meron points out, “Capitalism has to be a part of your cultural conversation. You have to be honest about that.”

After all, as she notes, transformation is typically a result of needing to meet a financial goal.

“So if you leave that out of your cultural conversation, you can’t be surprised when it doesn’t resonate with employees,” notes Meron. “There’s no magic bullet there. You just have to be really honest. Treat people like adults.”

“If your business transformation is a response to frustration among any of your core audiences,” adds Collins, “particularly among your employees, there are much deeper problems inside your organization.”

Surveys, as Howard notes, are good barometers for where things truly stand with employees, but there’s still the need to “humanize transformation.”

“As part of that, leaders have to be on the ground,” she counsels. “They have to be amongst the people to truly understand what the sentiment is. It’s a big component of executive positioning – and visibility is relatability.”

Thanks to Edelman for sponsoring this event.

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