Constant Communications: Everything Changes – Nothing Changes


Rachel CatanachIn a wide-reaching interview, Rachel Catanach examines what current trends in communications mean for those operating at the frontline of this fast-moving industry

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How has the PR industry changed as a result of the impact of social media and the shifting dynamic of media and marketing?

In some ways everything has changed and nothing has changed.  Communications  professionals are still the “corporate conscience”  – the caretakers of reputation – but the tools at their disposal and the environment in which they operate have irrevocably changed, creating demand for new attitudes, new skills and new ways of working and collaborating.

One of the biggest changes has been the rise of content marketing.  Companies are developing their own publishing platforms that allow them to more directly engage with consumers by creating stories that transcend channels and cultures.  Consumer demand for “snackable” content means editorial agendas are largely visually driven and this  is also spurring the PR industry to learn new skills  such as how to marry words and pictures  effectively. Technological developments such as virtual reality have the potential to change the game again.  Virtual reality paves the way for experiential story-telling that engages all the senses in a way never seen before.  Learning how to harness these new possibilities will be the next frontier for communication professionals.

Is the media as important to the corporate communications and PR industry as it once was?

In Asia Pacific, traditional media still has an influential role in setting the news agenda.  What has changed, however, is that social media is increasingly a news source for traditional media, particularly in markets such as China, where it is trusted more than government and business.   It is now imperative for corporate communications professionals to develop campaigns that reflect this symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media.

Many Asian millennials are going straight from no-media, to social media, what impact is this having on companies as they try to reach out to this segment?

It is forcing companies to be social by design in their communication and transparent in their intent.  Millennials are particularly quick to vote with their feet when they see bad corporate behaviour.  They prize authenticity and are more inclined to reward those companies they believe in through word-of-mouth support and repeat purchase.  Many companies recognize this power shift and are putting social purpose at the heart of their corporate agenda and business model.

Successful companies also recognize that millennials, particularly those in China, are very connected.  Tools such as Wechat allow them to build  communities of like-minded friends who they can share everything with at great speed. Each community operates like a micro sharing economy. For this reason, a homogenous strategy doesn’t work for millennials and companies need to develop a highly segmented approach that takes into account millennials’ different needs and aspirations.

We see a far wide, and far more active, stakeholder community in Asia Pacific. What does this shift to “many voices” actually mean in communications strategy terms?

The shift to many voices means a greater need for transparency and for companies to behave responsibly; it also means there is greater expectation by consumers that  companies will think beyond their shareholder obligations and elevate social purpose to a more integral part of their brand identity and business strategy.  In communication strategy terms this means that companies need to be aware of the actions of their entire supply chain and develop campaigns that are inclusive of all stakeholder interests.

What are your clients looking for when it comes to “innovation” in approach today?

Clients are increasingly wanting innovation that impacts business performance.  It no longer enough for communications professionals to be brand stewards;  companies want advisors that are multi-dimensional masters of many trades  – communications architects, technologists and creative story-tellers all rolled into one.   They also want communication advisors who can help them understand and manage the risk of failure inherent in many innovations.  This is creating demand for a new breed of consultants who understands the business of communications and can articulate risk and manage communications risk in a way that is meaningful to the C-Suite.

Where do you see the PR industry in a decade: and where do you see corporate affairs and GR evolving along with this?

Corporate affairs and GR professionals will continue to need to manage for risk but they will also need to deliver creative proactive campaigns that can change hearts and minds.  In addition to being a trusted advisor to the CEO and others in the C-Suite, corporate communications professionals will need to take a more integrated approach, working more closely with their counterparts in marketing, IT, and HR to create 360 degree campaigns that have the interests of all stakeholders in mind.

From a corporate standpoint, reputation has never been more important, but it’s also more fragile. What do corporations need to do to ensure they build, and defend, reputation in such a fast-moving environment?

There is a greater requirement for companies to communicate outside of mandatory reporting requirements and to be fully transparent with their business practices.  Companies also need to structure themselves so that the brand and reputation functions can work hand in hand.  Those that structurally separate brand and reputation are particularly vulnerable at times of crisis and can also find that their brand and reputation are not aligned. The expectation of consumers is inconsistent with the reality of the experience. Closing this gap can be challenging unless organizations are aware of what aspects of their operational behaviour are impacting their reputation.

Government now has many more channels of communication – with citizens, NGOS, the media – and the international community. What does this mean for companies seeking to raise their profile, or present an argument, to decision-makers?

Companies can no longer afford to take a linear approach to public affairs.  The integration of paid and earned has become even more important and we are seeing this in the US election campaigns at the moment.  Campaigns that are reliant on one channel or the other are not as effective as those where the message in earned media is reflected in paid media and vice versa.  This means that media planning has become even more important and will be a critical function for any corporate communications team in the future.

FleishmanHillard is a full service agency: what does this actually mean and how are your service offerings and capabilities evolving to match current trends in the industry?

As a full service agency, FleishmanHillard aims to help clients explore and navigate new communications challenges – from building brands, accessing new markets to mitigating crises — in a way that achieves impactful results.   While many of our offerings haven’t changed substantially – we still offer services such as crisis communications, internal communications, media relations, for example – the way we do them is vastly different now from even five years ago. Our capabilities are constantly evolving to meet the challenges of big data, new technology and changing consumer behaviours and consumption methods. We now have fully fledged creative teams, in-house production capabilities, social media and analytics professionals and planners.  These roles did not exist previously in the  corporate communications world but are essential now.

If there was one distinctive difference in the way FH approaches communications and corporate affairs, what would you say it was?

At FleishmanHillard, we use the framework of nine reputation drivers to help companies develop their corporate narrative in a way that is aligned to audience expectations of their behaviours. Our Authenticity Gap research, which looks at the gap between what consumers expect of an organization and what they actually experience, allows us to analyse which of the nine drivers is the priority and develop a campaign focused on these.

In Asia, our Authenticity Gap research  shows that credible communications is a key driver of a consumer’s willingness to advocate on behalf of a company. It is therefore more important than ever for organisations to focus on a comprehensive story that will resonate with the company’s business practices. When companies are seen to fall short on that reality they are perceived as insincere and ultimately inauthentic. Sweeping messaging platforms can leave an audience baffled and bored so it is vital therefore that any communication is peppered with true anecdotes and real life examples that demonstrate that this is not simply management speak.

Communicating regularly is imperative to a successful business reputation but it needs to be focused. Not every sector is the same, and each market will have different priorities. As this is the case it doesn’t make sense to communicate in a scattergun way about each of the nine drivers but instead have a strategy that is aligned to a company’s audience priorities.

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Rachel Catanach is President and Senior Partner of FleishmanHillard in Greater China