For communicators, the most essential motivator is relevance. The risk of obsolescence drives the best of them to constantly innovate to remain at the top of their game. One major dilemma facing the community today strikes at the very heart of the PR profession. It is this: is reputation still the cornerstone of communications? A growing ascendance of business outcome as a critical resultant of the communicator’s function is fast gaining traction. As a consequence, it is important for us as a community to understand this trend and examine its key imports. For instance, does communication really help with business outcome? And, if it does, can it be measured? These and many other fundamental questions on ‘Business Outcome Communications’ as a new communication direction were raised, addressed, and vigorously debated upon by some of the best minds in corporate communications at a recent Innovation First Salon 2019 (IFS 2019) hosted by Reputation Today in collaboration with First Partners.
The first brain trust of its kind in the country, IFS 2019 comprised a select and focused group of 18 of the best and the most incisive senior corporate communication heads in the country. They gathered together at the Hotel Leela in Gurugram last Tuesday, the 26th of November, and attempted to answer the basic question of whether communication should now play a more key role in impacting business outcomes, and hence, if it’s time for PR to move from the earlier reputation weighted model to a more business-outcome oriented one? The three-hour salon concluded with a few definitive insights which could serve as a good staging area for the next surge in the PR community. Here are the key takeaways from the Salon:
The primary message that emerged from the Salon was that PR must become a core business function and for this, communicators must up-skill and become much more goal oriented. It is through all this that the communicator’s role would get elevated and consequently help make Business Outcome Communications mainstream and integral to communications. The primary reason for this is that today companies are on an razors edge of survivability and the log-term horizon of reputation does not suit their fast-track, disruptive, frenetic change-prone business narrative. According to Atul Ahluwalia, Founding Partner, First Partners, “Public relations needs to transition from being a subsidiary function to a core one. However, PR will never be a core business outcome function till communicators acquire the relevant skills that such a change warrants. Up-skilling is the need of the hour as business leaders expect their communication partners to help in business as much as, if not more than, in building reputations. Eventually we must be able to institutionalise the business outcome model in order to make communications a vital core function of any organisation.”
Another headline direction of the Salon was he inevitability of change and the imperative of adaptability for communicators. The critical thought here relates to the choice communicators had between helping clients with relatively immediate and more short-term business goals or longer-term reputation-oriented goals. Dilip Yadav, Founding Partner, First Partners, spoke about the Charles Fombrun reputation model which has held sway for decades now but, like Friedman’s flat world, the need for communication to adapt to a changing landscape of fast-moving trends and keenness for quicker results is now a new reality. He said, “Do we agree that a business outcome model is relevant or does the reputation model still continue to steamroll its way ahead. If business outcome is the way to go, then how do we go about practicing and delivering on it? “
The other substantive outcome of the Salon was the conclusion that communicators need to extensively review the reputation management model in so far as it does not help in business results. There are examples where great reputations could not stem the tide of misfortune in even the largest and most formidable of organisations. According to a former communications head of a leading e-commerce company, “There are companies who, despite incurring losses in revenue, continued to be listed as the most admired of companies. In these instances, communications had helped their reputations, while doing little for their business outcomes. This points to the need to take a re-look at the reputation management model. It is a fact that businesses are getting disrupted and there is an opportunity to institutionalise the business outcome model.”
One of the most crucial take-away of the discussion related to a convergent approach to communications. Communicators have to build reputations over the longer term and also continuously support the business. This is important because while a company will surely survive on reputation, it will thrive only on business outcomes and this is why communicators must help here. This was the considered opinion of the former communications head of a global oil major, who remarked, “While working with a business leader, I had to think about his problems. A business’s client was not interested in how much your organisation was ‘loved’ but was more concerned with the product and the offering. If we really want business outcome driven communication, it has to basically say the same thing as the business needs.”
Budgets for communications and justifying these through apt measurements of PR outcomes was another principal derivative of the Salon. Here, it is important to understand that communications can support businesses in a multitude of ways. For instance, an outcome could be getting investments, or achieving clearances, or signing on new partnerships and great employees, and so on. In all these cases, it would greatly help the cause of business communications if more precise measurements of outcomes could be put in place. There is a clear need for in-house communicators to measure their success and map it to business outcomes. Exemplifying this was the head of communications of a global automotive giant, who said that, “We once had a system that every content that went out from our office had to have a call-to-action, which was to click on a link for any one of the car models. With this, we were able to measure the hits on the website and they ended up making a small but quantifiable contribution to the overall revenue for that quarter. It was an example of clear measurement of a business outcome that came from a communication effort.”
Finally, and by no means any less in value to others, was the issue of self-positioning for communicators. In order to become equal partners for businesses and become core to client’s operations, communicators have to do a much better job of positioning themselves as experts and business outcome facilitators. This way, PR professionals will be seen as adept, value plus problem solvers along with each CXO thy consult and assist. According to the communications lead of a global speciality materials company “We need to tell our own story to our internal stakeholders. There is a need to tell the story about the role that PR is playing and about the value add that it brings to the table. We need a seat at the proverbial table to show how we are making a difference”.
Overall, the Salon concluded with two clear insights. One, that there was a need to define business outcome communications and see if communication can play a role in achieving business results; and two, that communicators have not done enough PR for themselves with their client leadership, a fact essential for communications to transition from being a supportive role to a core one.