Ross Cathcart, Ogilvy PR - Business is a changed game

Comms professionals should take on the role of watchdogs in the new corporate landscape.

Indulge me for a moment and let me play a brief game of comparisons. One year on, as we mark this first birthday of the global financial crisis, the events of last September seem a bit like capitalism's Diana moment. Both her death and the end of the boom years played out like cataclysmic psychological game-changers.

To stretch the analogy a bit further, since that moment the corporate world has found itself, like the royal family did, teetering on the edge of a precipice of public confidence. Just as the royal family almost 'went bust', so the financial crisis has forced many in the business world, including PROs, to step back and ask 'where next?'.

It's probably about here that the game of comparisons should end. For one thing, I harbour serious doubts that in five years' time we shall ever see street parties being held around the UK in support of 'big business' as we did for the Queen in 2002.

So without resorting to photo-calls of CEOs in Bentleys pulling up at a drive-through McDonald's, what role can PROs play in the rescue of that slightly discredited yet vital social institution - the corporation?

The first thing to do is acknowledge that the game has changed and, indeed, needed to change. This year that realisation has started to take hold seriously. Two recent instances are illustrative of the zeitgeist.

The first is Jack Welch's conversion to conscience capitalism earlier this year. When the daddy of 'shareholder value' comes out and says he thinks it was a 'dumb idea' after all, then you have to accept something's afoot. The second is a recent analysis by McKinsey published in that handbook of woolly liberalism, the Harvard Business Review. I quote: 'Trust in business is running out ... regaining trust means dispensing with the view that the only objective of management is to increase shareholder value. Broadening the list of key stakeholders to include employees, customers, suppliers, communities, the press, unions, government and civil society will help companies rebuild credibility.'

All of which means the future for comms professionals will be less about our natural born talent for defining and honing a message. We've been doing that for years and we shall continue to be fantastic external advocates.

But our elevation to linchpins of corporate strategy will be our credibility as internal watchdogs to answer our clients when they ask, 'How will this play with all our stakeholders, not just our shareholders?' Who better to answer that question than comms professionals?

We know who the corporation needs to be in touch with and hear from, what it needs to say, and how it needs to say it. We are masters at identifying and tailoring engagement to multiple audiences. And so deep understanding of all stakeholder groups and our ability to play devil's advocate as and when corporate strategy is being developed will work most in our favour moving forward.

However, woe betide the executive who utters the word stakeholder on, say, the Today programme. We should not be using a catch-all when speaking to the myriad groups and individuals who can impact on a business's bottom line.

It may have taken a global crisis to finally wake strategists up to something we in the PR world have been talking about for years - the erosion of trust and its impact on the bottom line - but it is clear the agenda is now set in our favour. And this time, as we all undertake the greatest corporate turnaround job of our lives, let's hope no one decides to emulate the Queen and hire in Brian May to do the karaoke.

Views in brief

- Which company has produced the most relevant and resonant corporate responsibility work over the past year?

Cadbury's decision to go Fairtrade. Plan A for chocaholics - yummy.

- How would you advise that the Royal Bank of Scotland tries to repair its reputation?

Get Vince Cable's seal of approval on everything it does. Somehow.

- How are you advising clients to pursue a sustainability agenda this year?

The same as we do every other year - sustainability needs to be embedded into a business like any other process. Falling short of that is like shuffling deck chairs.

Ross Cathcart is a senior director at Ogilvy PR

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