SPECTRA Day 2: A futuristic communications landscape

If I had to hazard a guess about summarising my expectations of  #RTSPECTRA Day 2 in one word (before the event), I would have said – futurescape. And, it was a futuristic communications landscape. We gathered to engage, learn and share knowledge for a positive change.  

The day started with Nitin Mantri, Group CEO-Avian WE and President, ICCO expressing a firm belief that the current COVID19 situation spells out a ‘story of hope, resilience and optimism’, as it has given us the opportunity to radically re-think our future. Focusing on the power of positivity to harness opportunity and growth, he emphasised the fact that in this people vs pandemic war, positivity is key weapon. 

What was the impact on the communication business? There is no end to opportunities for PR and communication specialists during this remarkable time and the communication business is emerging stronger than ever. “It is our time to shine!” he exclaimed. 

What was the road ahead for PR in 2021 and beyond? PR has had a good year across developing markets, he said according to ICCO’s World PR Report. Brands that need to survive and thrive, must balance between profitability and the ‘people first’ approach. He endorsed that virtual communications is new territory for all of us – “What we need is a new game plan for online communication, raise our tech game and find the intersection between corporate stories and what the world needs”. Corporate purpose will be a key contributor and the expectations of brands to lead with purpose, has never been stronger! 

This is indeed, a forward-thinking time and we can let our imagination run wild! Let us continue the good fight and celebrate our victories. “Stay positive and let us spread the virus of hope,” was his parting shot as he quoted Nelson Mandela – ‘May your choices reflect hope and not your fears’. 

Learnings from Indian mythology

“The greatest thinkers, communicators have been fantastic storytellers,” said Amrish Tripathi, Columnist, Author and Director of Nehru Centre, London as he spoke about – “What can Brand Marketers learn from Indian Mythology”. The bestselling author (of books like The Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas) waxed eloquently about how Indian mythology presents various lessons in humility, humanity, acceptance; and most prominently, it is not black & white, but has a wider range, as it includes different viewpoints – all of which are critical factors for brands and managers. 

Communication and storytelling is intrinsically connected said Bianca Ghose, Chief Storyteller at Wipro during the Fireside Chat; and when probed how did his storytelling evolve, he added that the key thing about a story is that it is never about us as individuals – “Stories are about instinct and fortunately, we live in an age where people want to hear stories”. The best communicators and ad film makers are those who are rooted in India, and the best stories are instinctive, which come down through generations. 

How did he bring the power of ideas alive? Stories succeed when they are in the mood of the times and one of the main reasons why his books succeed (though his first book was rejected by publishers) is that they are in tune with the mood of the times. At an emotional, spiritual level, the book was so close to his heart, that he did not care whether it worked or not! “If you’re detached from success or failure, you’re unstoppable,” he pronounced. And don’t we know he is unstoppable!

Communication becomes effective when it captures the zeitgeist of its times. For instance, the film Pyaasa was a massive flop when it released, but it is now considered a cult classic. ‘The angry young man’ idea (Zanjeer) would have failed in the 1950s when India was still a hopeful nation, but it worked in the 1970s when the nation was suffering from the economic disasters of socialism, he said.

His word of advice to communication professionals, who are storytellers in their own right, was – do not sit in your AC offices but step out and get insights from the ground – a fact he had noticed as he had worked closely with marketing teams (when he worked full time as a banker). Make sure it is a good story, your key selling point, and have role quality – these insights will help storytellers shape their communication and brand strategy. The Vedas and the deep, embedded concepts, were not understood by Indians, but when Ved Vyas put together the Mahabharata, the concepts of love, bravery, loyalty, truth were clear to all. Take the time out, to research the roots of your market, rather than relying on ready research reports which might not give you the right direction for your campaign, he remarked. 

Is there a formula for 100% success? 100% success doesn’t work was his take. 

Communicating culture

“Communicating Culture at the Workplace and Beyond” was the centre of the discussion by Deia Campanelli, Chief Communications Officer and Head of Sustainability at Wabtec Corporation. Circling purpose as one of the most powerful tools of organisation, she disclosed, “At its most basic level, purpose expresses what an organisation inspires to be or do. At its most advanced level, it becomes the expression of how an organisation intends to evolve or transform. I think that purpose is not passive; it’s not even linear – it is transformational and reaps such rewards when promoted in its truest form.” Looking at companies like Microsoft and Apple that work with purpose, helping transform the world, she pointed out that at its core, Microsoft is helping every person achieve more and in doing so, they are fundamentally re-thinking the way that business and partnerships work; Apple started making PCs in the 1970s and today is one of the best-known companies selling billions of mobile phones, and they have also become the world’s largest music store. Clearly recognising the fact that disruption is everywhere.

Creating a purposeful culture is very important. She pinpointed three key pillars to building a purposeful culture in an organisation: a compelling story, having committed leaders and employee belief. These are pandemic times, when crisis is everywhere, and what is the role of leaders? They should deliver consistent, empathetic communication, for employees want to feel connected to the strategy and purpose.

And, when Payal Banerjee, Sequoia Capital, quizzed what was her key advice to leaders while communicating in crisis, Deia noted that you have to have ‘more’ communication than ‘less’, for a pandemic is isolating, and companies need to know and embrace their purpose. 

The recipe for good

2020 is the year none of us will forget, asserted Jerilan Greene, Global Chief Communications & Public Affairs Officer, Yum! Brands, Inc. as she spelt out “The Recipe for Good”. Putting the focus on how having a social purpose is critical for an organisation to best position itself in a very dynamic world, she stressed on the tremendous value and need for organisations to have a social purpose that drives positive impact; large brands and businesses have a unique ability to contribute meaningfully to challenges that affect us as citizens. Businesses have a lot of intangibles and intellectual capital that can be great for problem-solving. They have talent, networks, innovative thinking and processes and the ability to create partnerships to drive real results. Globally, Yum! operates leading brands like KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, The Habit Burger Grill and Wingstreet (except in China); and the company is focused on the concept of social purpose as key to make a positive difference. The Recipe for Good is focused on caring for three resources – food, planet and people. 

“We want to serve delicious food people trust. We want to grow sustainably with minimal impact on the planet. We want to unlock opportunity for our people,” she explained. With the pandemic, Yum! has been working tirelessly and taking concrete steps in areas of food safety, the protection of frontline restaurant workers and communities, customer safety, being more environmentally responsible, and investing in their people so they could unlock opportunities for themselves, thereby fighting inequality. And, referring to a “heartstyle leadership” The Recipe for Good has been formally elevated (with the brand’s growth strategy) to – Recipe for Growth. Over next five years, they are committed to fight inequality (by pledging $100 million), which has sparked a movement inside Yum! 

Building a legacy and starting a journey was sparked off; this involved their framework for success –  tapping into the power of employees, creating a mindset shift and ensuring that purpose works. She observed that there has been a paradigm shift from traditional CSR to social purpose. Standing for something and acting upon it, in the current environment, will put a business in the best position to drive growth, impact society positively and keep employees engaged.

In a conversation with Viju George, 2020MSL, she listed out how easy/difficult it is to have a global strategy. It is through clarity, collaboration, communication – that’s how you navigate the Recipe for Good across the globe. And, how does she overcome skepticism? No one can give complete solutions, you can do your part; we listen to our stakeholders, she said, but the trick is – keep listening, and deliver actions!

Building a better world

The world you want tomorrow starts with how you do business today, unraveled Andy Pharaoh, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, Mars, as he spoke on – “Building Back a Better World for the People and the Planet”. He spoke how the world is facing a challenge with COVID-19 and how Mars continues to step up and evolve in the face of a changing environment, while keeping its core values intact. 

With PR emerging as a source for ringing in positive change, Mars has been able to use its PR effort and resources on a global scale – to enable better, more sustainable, more purpose-driven ways of working. Putting the spotlight on purpose, he said at Mars it is considered to be an organisation’s ‘North Star’. “Purpose must be real and aspirational. At Mars, we say, ‘The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today’,” he disclosed.

COVID-19 has changed everything about how businesses run, and as a family-owned company, the leadership at Mars has been guided by the principles – to protect associates’ health, to stop the spread of the virus and to ensure core business continuity. “We’ve also focused on local communities, from refugee aid to donations to the UN Food Programme to the tune of $26 million. In India, we’ve addressed animal welfare and partnered NGOs to reach health workers with our products, among other initiatives,” he said.

Judging success at Mars was a way of life as they followed what is called the ‘Mars Compass’, which defines purpose as the engine for success. What does it highlight? It comprises of strong financial performance, being well-positioned for future growth, having a positive impact on the world and being a trusted partner in society.”

At Mars, they practice what they preach.  And, as businesses return to normalcy, he elaborated on five factors for businesses to keep in mind. What an organisation chooses to do is more important than what it chooses to say, for it’s all about defining and staying true to the business purpose;  if the purpose is clear, believable and aspirational, it can lead to effective company storytelling; embracing purpose and picking destinations means a business must have a point of view; the role of corporations is evolving, and the history we are living through right now is the biggest ever test of a company’s mission and “walking the walk has never been so important”.

Working with communities is part of the DNA of Mars. When Swati Sundareswaran, Royal Enfield asked how did they craft communication around the Sustainability Principle, Andy answered that they filter a lot of global storytelling and communication is part of their business strategy, and PR is a very valuable asset on complex topics like Sustainability. And, what were the biggest lessons? It was the importance of learning digital, communication is critical (can be life-saving) and increased recognition of being connected, which can usher in changes for the good. On striking a balance between glo-cal he felt that far better than focusing on global or local, is to focus on the relevance; it’s important to be sensitive, to be deft on what and when to communicate. 

GenZ  leadership

Dr Edna Ayme-Yahil, Senior Director, Head of Communications, Brand Sustainability at SITA, spoke about “What it takes to be a Communication Leader in 2030”.

Contemplating on what it means to be a communications leader, she outlined that a spokesperson is not necessarily a leader, (99% of the work is behind the camera). Being an enabler, a director (and not an actor) is important for the job. “I spend 99% of my work time enabling others to communicate – my CEO, business leaders or my team,” she said, and added – “The role of a communications leader is getting more and more complicated”. 

There are media relations, brand reputation, promoting the CEO and the corporate vision, digital communications, executive communications, internal communications, product communications, social media, transformation and M&A, events, and crisis communications. The list goes on, with different responsibilities getting added to the portfolio. However, you’re always learning new things. “That learning mentality is the key to success,” she added.

Explaining the required skill sets, she advised Gen Z who want a successful career in communications – think about your career strategically and ask questions; think about the big things like – media relations, brand communications, internal communication and digital communication. The competencies one needs to lead, come under four big categories – technical ability, messaging, collaboration and strategic thinking, which is key. On a philosophical note, she said that “Serendipity, karma or chance are beautiful things. You never know what might come in your way, so you shouldn’t reject opportunities that come up”.  And, top expectations of a communication leader? Without a doubt, pat came her answer – be smart, articulate, honourable, ethical. That’s not going to change, she insisted. 

Role of good content

Internal content could value higher than media coverage, advocated Jonathan Adashek, Chief Communications Officer, IBM, as spoke on “The Role of Good Content is Impactful PR”.  He unfolded  how good content impacts PR. “As we align our company’s efforts for strategy, we need to look for interesting ways to deliver the message. We don’t create content to tell stories just for the sake of it, we have to create content consistently to communicate our efforts, and our narrative, over time,” he explained and then highlighted the power of employees to narrate a brand’s message. “We tap into our 3,50,000 employees – 90,000 of whom are in India – and use them as ambassadors of the message. We have also tapped into a large, diverse ecosystem of employees, developers, partners, clients, and social influencers to help us tell the story”. 

An effective content strategy “fires on all fronts – the message, medium, platforms and ecosystem”. And they all work together – to drive the story, influencing the media and other stakeholders.  “We need to find the purpose and, the purpose is bigger than the bottomline; we need to remain true to our company’s narrative and that is critical,” he spelt out. 

How does owned content lead to earned media coverage? The first IBM YouTube video – A Boy and his Atom grabbed media attention.  “To grab the attention of the media, content needs to inspire, provide something new and unique,” he said. In content, lies the power to show who we are, which in turn, affects our reputation. Then there was their Mayflower case study, which was a story that garnered universal appeal. Success hinges on the fact that businesses need to let people be the heroes of their stories to garner attention and relatability. “We never lost sight of the real purpose of the project – to explore the oceans and the ocean took centrestage! It was laying out the ‘unchartered’ for IBM. “To sum up, any content can be made appealing. Don’t  lose sight of the basics. Stay grounded in your company’s mission and strategy,” he strongly put forward. 

In a dialogue with Vasundhara Mudgil, Spotify India he explained how closely business/marketing strategy is aligned to communication. “Content has to be a key driver,” he said. The message needs to be tweaked to make it relevant to the audience. We’ve got to be much more creative. Re content strategy, his tips were – be grounded, have a deep understanding of the business, fight from all fronts for content shows who you are. 

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity 

In a Fireside Chat, Zeno Group’s CEO Barby Siegel engaged in a discussion with Torod Neptune, Worldwide Group Vice President & Chief Communications Officer, Lenovo Group and the topic revolved around “How Diversity, Inclusion and Equity got prominence in 2020”. The conversation weaved around issues ranging from workplace diversity, workplace biases against people of colour, and how young professionals can have their voices heard in the organisation.

Touching on the tragic death of George Floyd (and the protests and response to the incident) and the realities of working in a post-COVID world, Barby wondered if this was a moment where real change (on creating diverse workplaces) would take place. Torod was hopeful that it would “change the narrative around our industry” and added – “There are few moments in history where the mental, emotional understanding of the weight of the challenge is more present. It makes me optimistic that we are in this place of collective mental, organisational and societal alignment.”

Focusing on the importance of a diverse workplace, he shared that pre-COVID, he had travelled widely around the world and as a business and operational leader, and the importance of different perspectives was reiterated over and over again. “It is exciting to experience and be submerged in cultures that are fundamentally different from one’s own. A roomful of diverse perspectives offers a unique dynamism and ideas that you wouldn’t think of on your own. Industries today need and want diversity across race and gender,” he stated. On diversity, he pointed out that all businesses are aligned, “but for us to have a meaningful impact on this issue, business leaders must work on the last mile of their business with determination. Brands must use the last available mechanism to drive action for change.”

When Barby questioned, why people of colour have long been “absent from the decision-making roles” in organisations, he stressed on an inherent, “unconscious bias” against people of colour in business scene. He said, “Managers must understand these nuances of inclusivity. These are deep waters, where we are focused on quick fixes or just numbers. We lose sight of the operational and cultural biases at play, and it minimises the importance of having dynamic organisational cultures.”

Raising the issue of young professionals handling an uncomfortable work environment, Barby wondered what can they do about it – “Whatever place on the diversity spectrum they are, young professionals may feel alone or that the company is not doing enough. How can they speak up and hold leaders accountable?” He urged young professionals need to bolster up the courage to ask questions to probe the culture of the organisation, even during the interview process.

When the next big thing comes, I hope DIE will not move away, said Barby. It will depend on the consistency of leadership”, was Torod’s strong opinion and he urged – We need to use our voices, to ensure that we don’t lose the momentum, built over the last eight months.    

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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