-Mariana Agathoklis, VP of comms, Verizon
-Ashley Chauvin, head of enterprise and B2B communications, corporate reputation, MSL
-Kelly Jankowski, MD, corporate reputation, MSL
-Annie Lohmeyer, senior consultant, corporate affairs, Korn Ferry
-Sarah Meron, VP, corporate affairs, IBM
-Michele Moore, VP and CCO, Ford Foundation
-Meera Pattni, head of global comms, Semafor
The impact of today’s increasingly polarized environment is inescapable. That reality has drastically changed the way that brands and their leaders must communicate with their consumers, stakeholders, employees and the public at large.
Every word needs to be chosen carefully. Ditto as to the platforms on which those words are shared. Sometimes, it truly is better to not say anything. Decisions made in this regard are among the most important executives make these days.
During this recent roundtable, hosted by MSL at PRWeek’s New York City offices, some of the comms industry’s top minds spoke candidly about how this reality manifests itself with their leaders and, in turn, how that is impacting their own roles as key advisors to the C-suite.
At the Ford Foundation, “our CEO is navigating risks, understanding that we have a real responsibility to stand for who we are from a mission perspective,” says VP and CCO Michele Moore.
The overarching question, she adds, is how to keep “employees engaged who may want to be more vocal than we may be prepared to be, yet stick to our mission?” As a comms person, it’s important to provide “recommendations and advice that is not only a perspective of the landscape, but also a perspective of the team and organizational culture.”
Ultimately, it boils down to “how you live your values as a company,” suggests Verizon’s Mariana Agathoklis. “And that does start with your employees. You don't [always] need to be out there loudest speaking on a social issue when you're showing it every day.”
That constant focus on employees is a main contributor to the transformation the comms discipline is currently undertaking.
“What has radically shifted is simply that the employee workforce is your biggest stakeholder,” asserts Meera Pattni of Semafor. Conversations with her executive team often focus on how to talk to staff about issues.
“From day one, [our leaders] established just an incredibly transparent relationship with staff,” reports Pattni.
From an internal perspective, it’s critical for “the senior team to come up with some guiding principles,” Moore explains. “These are the things that we stand for. These are the things we're not going to speak against.”
To IBM’s Sarah Meron, the industry has already made great strides in communicating more effectively amidst all the change.
“We're a lot smarter than we were three years ago in terms of executives understanding a little bit more about what's going on,” she observes. “When this started, the screams on Slack would win the day. No matter how many principled conversations you had about ‘Here's our framework, here's our process,’ someone would get really loud on Slack and it would turn into a crisis that would consume the C-suite.”
There’s an inherent value, continues Meron, in listening and understanding that “a small subset of employees very activated does not mean they represent, in IBM's case, 250,000 people worldwide.”
When it comes to values, companies have to do more than just establish them. They must train the staff on their significance.
“We've seen a lot of companies do really deep work on setting those values and then not get them to the line-level marketing managers to understand them with a real depth,” observes MSL’s Kelly Jankowski.
(clockwise from top left): Moore, Meron and Jankowski (all photos courtesy of Chris Farber)
Broader implications to the role
The roundtable conversation definitively established how comms’ role is evolving and expanding due to the changing environment and various stakeholders’ rising expectations of brands and their leaders. This, in turn, has notably impacted how organizations hire for comms roles.
“We've seen a [rising] understanding that perhaps communications functions aren't as mature as they need to be to respond in these ways,” says Korn Ferry’s Annie Lohmeyer.
And it seems that organizations want to address this. According to a recent Korn Ferry survey, 40% of the CCOs now report to the CEO, up from 35% in 2015.
“More also report to the chief HR officer, which reflects the increasing employee focus,” adds Lohmeyer. In addition, there is greater alignment between comms, government affairs and public policy, with “many CCOs graduating into those chief corporate affairs officer roles and taking on those other functions.”
As comms leaders take on more of those responsibilities, “it's not only about the talent and skill that you have as an individual, but how you translate that to other people,” suggests Moore. “Management continues to be something at which communications professionals need to get better.”
Employees today want to be aligned with the companies they work for. “When you’re joining a company,” explains MSL’s Ashley Chauvin, “you're looking up that company's values.”
What Agathoklis has found at Verizon is that “you can never underestimate the power of a consistent message – internally and externally.” Her advice: “Prepare your comments as if anything you say will be on the cover of The Wall Street Journal. If you're comfortable with that, then hit send.” The key is to make sure you have an authentic voice.
“I often say to executives, ‘You’ve got to be true to yourself,’” she continues. “I'm not going to try to make you someone you're not.”
It’s important to “get to the root of who they are because you need to be able to find something that is core and true to them, then marry that with whatever the company messaging is,” Chauvin advises. “That's how we make smart decisions about when to and when not to engage.”
(clockwise from top left): Agathoklis, Lohmeyer, Chauvin and Pattni
Empathy in action
The pandemic has turned empathy into a crucial trait by which brands and their leaders are measured. And that realization has significantly boosted comms’ overall impact far beyond simply being the go-to group when something goes wrong.
“In every role I've been in, I really wanted to humanize communications and comms people,” says Pattni, noting the need for executives to be honest and admit mistakes to all their stakeholders.
While it’s always been important, having empathy for employees and concern for their well-being is critical for retaining and attracting talent. And communicators are working with executives to convey those sentiments.
At Semafor, “we obsess about the employees,” underscores Pattni. “We obsess about work from home, the office space, [being] transparent enough.” Whether at a startup or more established company, executives “cannot be afraid to talk to their employees.”
Incentivizing employees to return to the office in many cases has become a core responsibility of comms, adds Lohmeyer. “Employee engagement is now often directly reporting into the chief comms officer.” In fact, a recent Korn Ferry survey found that internal communications is now the second most desired skill for the CCO role – “a big shift from when we did this survey a couple of years ago,” she asserts. (Media relations is the most desired skill.)
When it comes to empathy, Agathoklis shares a story about her CEO that underscores comms’ influence on leadership.
At her recommendation, the CEO underwent retail training, visited the stockroom and spoke to customers on a store floor to truly understand the employee experience and, in turn, how to retain them.
“Why you are at a job is the number-one thing everyone in this country is asking themselves,” she suggests. This exercise with her CEO certainly helped clarify that for him – “and that's a huge opportunity for comms.”
Communicators are truly at the center of everything the company is doing – internally and externally. Being human and empathetic “is a necessary part of the role because you need to be able to hear all sides and all perspectives, get that information, and then know how to filter it, leverage it and use it,” counsels Chauvin.
It’s also critical for executives to “not confuse decision-making with the communication of the decision,” asserts Moore. “Don't tell me we need a better message when the decision is faulty.”
Agathoklis has actually found that press releases can help clarify decisions for people internally. For example, an executive asked her to draft a press release about her dream holiday commerce strategy that he would present to the team to help sell them on the concept. Armed with that information, the discussion then becomes about “how” we do this versus “can” we do this.
“One of the biggest differentiators of comms is how incredibly distributed it is, especially if you're trying to influence the outside world,” concludes Jankowski. It’s no longer possible to “separate the social good from the social strategy anymore because that's what creates the echo chamber.”
COMMITMENT OF TIME
The roundtable clearly highlighted how executive management has become a definitive part of comms’ role. Exactly how much of their time do PR leaders devote to this specific aspect of the job? We found out.
As the comms lead at a startup, Pattni spends “quite a lot” of time on executive visibility. It is particularly helpful in articulating the vision of the company both internally and externally.
At MSL, “a large part of what we are seeing is tied to executive visibility in some way,” Chauvin explains.
Jankowski agrees that “almost everything that we are doing with clients is leadership oriented.” In fact, the majority of the “actual time and hours is about expressions of leadership.”
At an established brand such as Verizon, executive visibility is “probably 80% of the job,” Agathoklis estimates. However, “it's not just about the executives’ visibility. It's about the message, the vision, the purpose, the priorities.” It’s at the center of the “partnership with the executive and how we drive consistency between what they need from the business and what we communicate.” Ultimately, that partnership is how they drive business.
At the Ford Foundation, executive visibility is not just about the CEO, but also the team of directors and VPs. Moore spends two-fifths of her time “cultivating their thought leadership and internal speaking points with their teams,” she points out.
At IBM, executive visibility is “80% of what I do,” Meron reports, who additionally reports that she is spending significantly less time today than she did even just a couple of years ago trying to convince the C-suite about the importance of social good. They get it now.
This, in turn, has allowed comms to get to "a point of being a truly mature professional function,” she notes.
Lohmeyer has found that executives are looking for advisors when filling senior communication positions.
“More CCOs are reporting directly to the CEO by design,” she concludes. “Their peers are the other C-suite leaders that also directly report to the CEO and have a seat at that table. A big part of their day, in addition to running their team, is being an advisor to the business and giving that executive counsel around reputation and their teams.”