- Brian Cookstra, director of comms, The Clinton Foundation
- Kate Cronin, chief brand officer, Moderna
- Alice Hogg, senior enterprise account executive, Meltwater
- Richard Marshall, global MD, corporate affairs, Korn Ferry
- Tony Morrison, senior director of comms, GLAAD
- Ellie Polack, MD, external affairs, Cigna
- Michelle Weese, head of corporate affairs, Novartis
It is impossible to have almost any conversation today without recognizing the numerous major worldwide events that are significantly impacting all aspects of our lives. Economic concerns. Climate change. Military conflicts. Numerous crucial elections that will reshape the future, including, perhaps, the most consequential one in the history of the U.S.
None of us can be sure how these events will alter our daily lives, but we can all be certain they will. Those who work in the communications industry will definitely experience it. They already are.
Those who joined Meltwater and PRWeek for this roundtable discuss how they and their teams are operating day to day in a current environment marked by extreme uncertainty.
Assessing societal issues
When addressing larger social issues, “find ways to humanize those issues, but still maintain that core of who you are and what you're trying to do in your space,” advises GLAAD’s Tony Morrison.
Organizations can no longer address a singular issue.
“One of the biggest evolutions in the media landscape,” notes Brian Cookstra of The Clinton Foundation, “is the increasing interconnectedness of all of these challenges.”
And this shift is certainly impacting recruitment.
“The mash-up of these macro events is driving economic uncertainty,” observes Korn Ferry’s Richard Marshall. “And the economic uncertainty translates into a hiring slowdown. That puts stress on the practitioners in these roles, the teams that you have, how you're scaling your roles, what types of things are important.”
Communicators today are expected to see around corners and predict what’s next.
The Clinton Foundation has noticed “the increasing need to invest in climate adaptation without diverting those resources from climate mitigation efforts,” Cookstra explains. “As communities increasingly see the effects of climate change in their backyards, that pot will not only need to expand because we must invest more to stop our changing climate, but also to help communities adapt.”
The assembled leaders additionally recognize major societal issues that are, perhaps, not as top of mind, but just as potentially impactful. Cigna’s Ellie Polack chimes in with the following:
“The teen mental-health crisis and the impact it's having on working parents. As this crisis is exacerbated by anxiety, depression, addiction, etc.,” she continues, “the weight on working parents who are struggling to be present and productive in the workplace will be a massive business-critical issue for CEOs.”
Companies are also faced with another epidemic: long COVID.
“It's causing an impact in the workforce for people who are 30 to 50 years old, in the prime of their lives,” says Moderna’s Kate Cronin. “They're suffering from various symptoms that impact their ability to work and function.”
Generational workforce shifts will also shape the future workplace.
“A generation of talent is coming in that hasn't necessarily been properly trained or mentored to elevate up,” adds Marshall. “You've got different sets of expectations that different employee groups have.”
(Clockwise from top left) Cookstra, Cronin, Hogg, Marshall, Weese, Polack and Morrison
Data: The day-to-day
“We can't move what we don't measure.”
This proclamation by Morrison kicks off a segment of the roundtable in which the gathered leaders discuss how — and why — data and analysis play a central role in the daily comms function.
The advancement of AI has made it easier for comms to utilize data on a daily basis.
“The way that we're sorting through and mining data and analysis is far more efficient today than it has been in the past,” asserts Novartis’ Michelle Weese.
It has also impacted how PR pros approach comms.
“The way we think about designing communications programs and initiatives,” notes Cronin, “we have data in mind the entire time, for the entire process, so that we're able to pivot dynamically and we don't get stuck.”
And that use of data is making comms an invaluable service.
“Increasingly, comms is becoming that kind of central resource that everybody is going to for insights,” adds Meltwater’s Alice Hogg.
“There is no other role in the organization that has to think about and have a 360-degree perspective, other than the CEO,” Marshall explains. “You're thinking about all the different stakeholders, all the different scenarios, all the different pulls and takes in terms of dealing with this.”
As the communicator’s day-to-day role evolves, the makeup of comms teams does as well.
“We have to do more with less,” says Cronin. “[These teams are] not just traditional media relations people. They can do a little bit of everything.”
Cigna is “bringing together our internal and external [comms],” reports Polack. “We’re calling it ‘mixternal.’”
“In building teams to become more agile, the people on my teams need to be able to do both,” continues Weese. “I must be able to pull people that are ambidextrous and that can do a lot.”
There is still room for particular expertise, though. For example, content-generation specialists have become a priority.
“We are becoming our own newsroom, our own brand and we call it ‘taking the pen back,’ ” shares Polack. It’s important to “free up space to be able to tell the creative stories that will land, in addition to all the business and strategic business stories that we need to tell.”
The media landscape has become “small d democratic,” adds Cookstra. “Recognizing that as the media landscape has evolved so rapidly and people consume their news in wildly varying ways, the best ideas don't always come from the top. The strongest insights into how people are consuming news sometimes come from the newest, youngest folks on the team.”
In this changing landscape, “the function of communications, especially when it's so content-facing, is moving into a more programmatic feature of an organization,” suggests Morrison.
And now that teams understand algorithms, it will be necessary to learn to “fight the algorithm and find ways to break through,” says Cookstra. “It's not just traditional story mining and storytelling. It's doing that in systemic ways that are designed to bring more base emotions to the top of your newsfeed.”
Going forward, Morrison believes comms professionals will also require “video acuity” to best do their jobs.
Broadly speaking, PR pros must be early adopters of technology.
“The most successful communicators of the future will be the ones who can harness AI,” underscores Hogg.
In addition, it’s critical to develop “business acumen,” advises Marshall. “It’s having the executive presence to be able to make a compelling argument for the functional role, but also understanding and being able to build relationships within the business community.”
The barometer for being an optimally effective communicator is also changing.
“It's one thing to be a great practitioner,” notes Polack. “It's another thing to sell your ideas to the C-suite.”
In conclusion, Weese emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence to be able to handle all the situations that communicators confront.
“Being able to meet people where they are,” she counsels, “and knowing how to inspire and motivate will be critical in the future.”