The corporate affairs learning curve

The practice of corporate public affairs in India is becoming ever  more global in outlook, with organisations required to be in touch with the increasingly complex stakeholder community, argues Sukanti Ghosh 

The worst thing that a corporate communications professional can do is fail to inform his or her organisation of the fact that public scrutiny is far greater than ever before.

Every corporation needs to take cognisance of all the voices which are out there. A bad product or an unethical corporation is a recipe for disaster in today’s world. If you are not careful and aware of this, you as a professional will spend a huge amount of time fighting fires over and over again – each time seeing your professional standing dragged further into the mire.

Corporate affairs is an active, living profession. It is dynamic and it takes in a lot of energy from the environment around it. If you are not continually learning and taking account of what is going on around you, then there is something wrong with either your approach or the organisation in which you are working.

In India, public affairs and corporate communications exist at varying levels of maturity. The terminology does not mean the same thing to different companies – which are themselves at different places on the maturity curve.

If you are looking for a communications solutions provider, there is always a different model, a cheaper option that you can find if you set your mind to it. All companies – and within them, communications professionals – need to understand what they really need. At times this starts with initiating the internal and external stakeholders into what one actually means by public affairs and corporate communications and what it can deliver.

There are lots of definitions of corporate affairs. However, the one I vividly recall was voiced by an Indian communications professional – Sanat Lahiri – many years ago. He said public relations or corporate communications is about helping an organization “negotiate changes with the minimum of friction”.

That is what we do. We are the facilitators. We work with the management of our organisation’s as they engage with their internal and external stakeholders – and the community at large – and help them negotiate all the changes, be they positive or negative, that lead to or impede progress toward achieving “corporate satisfaction”.

A global stakeholder community

Until the global financial crisis, there were regions that believed we lived in an insular, somewhat fragmented world. That, however, is a myth which has been conclusively broken. We are all part of a global network, be it India or China, Europe or North America. The similarities are growing with every passing day.

Client needs are becoming increasingly similar. Customer groups are merging and all corporations face similar scrutiny from customers, peers, pressure groups, opinion formers, investors and regulators.

There are more and more global clients and international customers. While we have lots of global companies operating in India today, we also have a growing number of Indian companies which are going out overseas and buying up companies themselves. Jaguar Land Rover and Corus are cases in point.

This means we have to deal with a very rapid learning curve in terms of what corporate and public affairs need to deliver.

In India there are also a unique set of challenges that we have to work with. We have a multiplicity of languages, significantly more than you see in Europe or in many other parts of the world. In many respects India is more like a continent, with close to 1000 dailies, bi-weeklies, weeklies, fortnightlies and monthlies published in 18 languages from all over the country that accounts for over 90 per cent of the country’s readership.

Couple this with the many different sub-cultures that exist and a diverse spectrum of socio-economic classes and you start to realize just how difficult it is to satisfy all of the stakeholders in all of the markets.

Global structures

The global power structures are changing rapidly. You can be sitting operating in India but a development in Brazil can affect your license to operate.

These are very real issues. Stakeholders are today voicing themselves far more openly than in the past. This is resulting in increased awareness among corporations that they need to take cognisance of the views of their wider stakeholder base, which in many ways they gives them the license to operate.

Communications today works at a far deeper level than it has ever before. Most mature organizations have come to terms with the fact that they need to keep their ears close to the ground and monitor what is being said about them, both in their home markets and across all key geographies. Monitoring is the key. Engagement follows.

If you try to engage with them without understanding what is being said and the reason behind it, you may find yourself barking up the wrong tree. It is therefore imperative to first map, then monitor, understand and finally engage with one’s stakeholders, but response times have had to become a lot faster with technology allowing people to share information at the blink of an eye.

Corporations today live under perpetual scrutiny. There is always someone, somewhere watching over their shoulders and preparing to blow the whistle. This means that transparency and ethical behaviour is definitely the order of the day. But there are possible benefits from this new era that could be realized. The very fact that these opinion formers are so interested in your organization, can actually be used constructively to collaborate with them and fine tune ones offerings in the marketplace.

However, there are not too many organisations which understand the importance of communications as much as they should. In many ways, the financial crisis was one of the biggest boons to the corporate public affairs industry in recent times as professionals were forced into the eye of the storm: you either had to help your company swim, or watch it sink. Organisations, in turn, have been forced to seek the help of professional communications counsel and crises communications strategies in dealing with issues that were unpleasant for the company’s internal and external stakeholders.

In conclusion, organisations need to stop using communications are the final link in the strategy chain. Communicators have to be given access to information and they have to be given a seat at the decision making table. Management has to understand that corporate communicators ask for this not because they want the power and stature that comes along with this, but because, information is the vital software that communications needs to effectively make its mark.

Without timely access to this raw material, communications can never really do what it is supposed to. And this is not just in relation to crises. It is also about spotting opportunities which could be positively leveraged that other people within the organisation are not trained to see. Once you start spotting them, and start making a difference, this soon becomes a habit that everyone wants to be a part of. After all, nothing succeeds like success!

Sukanti Ghosh is head of corporate affairs at Barclays Bank Plc in India

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