“Everyone communicates”: The growing role of corporate communications and stakeholder relations

It is said that a business’ reputation is all that stands between its profit and its ruin, and in the past decade, I believe that this has never been more true. Since the advent and growth of Web2.0, organisations have come under increasing levels of scrutiny from both the general public and their competitors, who would no doubt seize upon and exploit any negative press so as to advance their own corporate strategy.

According to Dahlen, “Everything and everyone communicates” (2010), with advances in technology meaning that we all now have the ability to communicate and share our opinions publicly. Social media is not only a key example of this (through websites such as Facebook, Twitter and WordPress), but in particular, has become a medium through which we can visibly see the ways we shape the content of our online personas to reflect varying aspects of our identities. In Communications, be it the marketing, advertising or public relations industry, this is an even more apparent phenomenon as we increasingly tailor our words towards different groups, altering what we say on behalf of our clients’ brands and the ways in which we say it depending on our relationship with (and knowledge of) the recipients. This can be a double-edged challenge for businesses who are expected to not only utilise digital platforms as an outlet for external communications, but also to directly communicate and have conversations with their stakeholders, particularly their customers.

In seeing the vast opportunities opened by online platforms and social media, businesses are now capitalising on and engaging more and more with social media – a recent survey found 79% have used or planned to use social media. However a 2013 study by Fishburn Hedges and Jigsaw Research exploring the changing nature of corporate narratives, found that businesses’ self-portrayals were still not sufficiently engaging to their audiences, with 20% of the general public surveyed stating that they don’t believe brand ‘stories’ at all and 52% claiming to not believe brand stories if they are conveyed through advertising and communications.

From corporate social responsibility to crisis management, effective communications between companies and their stakeholders is becoming an increasingly vital element for a successful business practice. The CIPR defines public relations as being “about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.”

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This is corroborated by Simon Matthews, Chief Executive of Fishburn Hedges, who said: “Audiences can see right through business messages that don’t correlate with corporate behaviour. Corporate communications has an opportunity to help unify different organisational voices and bridge the gap between them to be a force for cultural good within the business.”

It’s no longer enough to shout about how amazing you are on social media, the public (particularly young people) are becoming increasingly savvy in spotting companies whose behaviour doesn’t live up to its advertising. McDonald’s for example, is currently spiralling into a long-predicted reputational crisis where its recurrent US labour law violations and unappetising news reports on food content and quality has led to significantly sagging sales. To quote Jim Hightower, “You know your business has what image consultants call “quality perception issues” when you have to launch a PR initiative that publicly addresses such questions as: “Does McDonald’s beef contain worms?”

McDonald’s is paying the price for its lack of corporate and communicational consistency, and is left on the defensive in trying to mitigate some of the negative publicity it now faces. If they had instead taken a proactive approach in identifying and approaching their stakeholders, they would have been able to categorise them based on either Mendelow’s Power and Influence Matrix or Mitchell, Agle and Wood’s Salience Model, and establish, not only their motivations and areas of concern, but also the best ways in which to manage or engage. Instead the brand is left scrambling to distract from its poor media coverage through a new ad campaign centred on linking its Golden Arches to the healing power of ‘love’.

Without changing to more fair and equal corporate practices though, I’m hesitant in thinking that anyone will be Lovin’ this brand’s attempts to regain it’s reputation.

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Introducing 500 word ‘fixes’: Subject 1 – Interflora

We use flowers to mark every occasion. They decorate weddings and holidays, mark births and deaths, and say ‘Thank you’ or ‘Get well soon’. Interflora: the largest and most experienced flower delivery network in the world, has been helping its customers’ “Say it with flowers” for nearly a century. Its reputation for excellence, based on the work of its award-winning florists, is centred on three specific brand values; ‘trusted’, ‘personal touch’, and ‘WOW! Factor’.

However, Interflora’s customers are invariably middle aged men and women. If you ask young adults where they would go to buy gifts for their loved ones, flowers has fallen down the ranks; even asking them where they would go to specifically buy flowers will rarely spark recognition of the Interflora brand. Instead, they’ll think of supermarkets, whose focus is on convenience and low prices, leading to supermarket’s market share rising so that over 70% of the UK’s £2.25 billion flower sales are now bought there.

I propose that to increase brand awareness within young people and regain market share, Interflora needs to tap into the mind-sets and consumption habits of young people so as to raise the profile of buying premium hand-delivered florist-made bouquets as opposed to a cheaper supermarket alternative.

Praised for their delicate beauty and heady aroma, flowers are often given to loved ones such as parents and grandparents, so I propose a digitally-led integrated campaign which focuses on them as the recipients. However, rather than using the standard sentiment of “I love you” for these recipients, I believe that saying “Thanks” holds more creative potential. Our parents and grandparents after all, are often those who’ve most actively shaped our childhoods and therefore the adults that we become. Centring a campaign around this fact can therefore have universal appeal, tapping into the gratitude of young people, the nostalgia of the elderly, and the sentimentality of all.

The campaign would consist of an initial series of short videos on Facebook showing, for example, how a grandmother’s role in teaching her granddaughter to bake sparked a passion for cookery, resulting in the granddaughter getting a job in a top kitchen. Simultaneously, under the hashtag #minetaughtme, a Twitter campaign can be used to tap into real people’s memories of growing up and how those experiences have shaped their lives, with the results being used to reward lucky users with a discounted bouquet delivery to their loved ones as well as to create additional videos which can be aired both on and off-line for maximum reach

I would also seek celebrity endorsement, as gaining their stories on how their parents’ and grandparents’ actions during their childhood influenced their success as adults would, without doubt, boost the campaign’s appeal and recognition amongst its target audience. I would also utilise their inclusion by hosting Interflora-sponsored events in shopping areas across the country to celebrate and reward particular parents/grandparents with a surprise bouquet whilst they’re shopping with their loved ones.

Skill-building for students: What we need to impress employers

One of my current favourite blogs, the ever-insightful Comms2point0, published a post on Friday by Sarah Stimson covering her perspective on what skills are currently needed for a career in PR; namely: ‘Likeability’, ‘Writing skills’, ‘An interest in media and current affairs’, ‘Attention to detail’, and being “savvy” with social media.

Whilst these areas are of course valuable, I don’t think the article perhaps addressed the nitty gitty specifics. Seeing a gap, I’m intending to fill it with a breakdown of a few slightly more specific things that we students/newbies need to be able to demonstrate when job-hunting – that’s not to say we need all of them however, as agency and role requirements vary to suit their and their clients’ needs.

I’m basing this post on a compilation of suggestions by marketing, journalism and PR academics such as Sheffield Hallam’s new PR whizz, @LizBridgen; DMU Journalism Lecturer, David Penman; and my own experiences facing what employers claim to expect skill-wise in interviews and job descriptions.

Some may be obvious. Some may seem like they’re unnecessary for any but the highest over-achievers. But I believe they all have great potential for being useful not only to initially ‘get’ a job, but also to succeed once in it.

Writing skills

Arguably the most important aspect of a communications/marketing/PR role – It would be idiotic to claim otherwise.

Writing doesn’t always come easy though, and your tone of voice in what you write needs to be adaptable. Creating your ‘personal voice; however is something that only really comes with practice, I find, so specifically, the following will help with that and in building your professional ‘brand’ as it were.

  • Create and regularly update your own Blog. Don’t forget to share posts via Twitter and LinkedIn.
    • Blog and tweet about current media issues and areas.
  • Review PR/marketing/advertising books on Amazon.
  • Write for a local or University magazine.
  • Write press releases and blog posts for University societies and clubs.
  • Write for a student PR magazine such as ‘Behind the Spin‘ or for CorpComms Magazine.

As well as practising and honing your writing skills (including your attention to detail), all of the above can be a way of demonstrating that you have an active interest in media and current affairs that goes beyond just reading Metro headlines on the way to the interview.

Creative skills (for Advertising and Marketing)

Practice. That’s all I can recommend. It doesn’t need to be perfect, you have time to hone your ‘craft’ but being able to show you’ve done some of the following go’s a long way to suggesting you have the creative/innovative and therefore useful approach that employers like.

  • Create a perfect portfolio. Only contain the best of your work; remember your choices are what are ‘selling’ your ability to an employer, show them what you can accomplish.
  • Practice creating under pressure. @OneMinuteBriefs I’ve found really helpful for this even if my attempts are usually notebook doodles rather than cut-past collage masterpieces
  • Draw/sketch/paint/design every day that you have the time. Some may be rubbish, but soon you’ll pick up on ideas and improve time-wise.
  • Visit Museums, art shows, theatre performances. Attend niche music events and watch independent films. Breaking out of a personal ‘bubble’ exposes us to a wealth of creative inspiration that we can use.

Networking

Some of us love it. Many students don’t. How do we get our identities known so we can get that elusive ‘big break’. The following are a few of the ways I’ve come up with for meeting and greeting (within PR particularly). They don’t take an awful lot of effort either if I’m honest. Easy peasy!

  • Join the CIPR (small fee for students, free membership for students of Uni’s with CIPR-recognised courses).
  • Join the PRCA (free for students I believe).
  • Research the agencies you want to work for and the people who work there.
  • Find current agencies and practitioners with personal blogs. Have an opinion! Ask for advice! Give feedback!
  • Follow and engage with relevant people on Twitter and LinkedIn. Comms chats like last week’s #measurePR discussion are particularly great!
  • Create your own business cards. Moo.com is cheap. Make sure to include your LinkedIn, Twitter, Email and Blog addresses or even a QR code.
  • Go to CIPR events and local business events.

Social media savvy

To me, the term ‘savvy’ never fails to bring ‘pirates’ to mind (thanks to a childhood love of Johnny Depp) but that’s probably the one thing I’d recommend not to do. I know it may seem low risk to grab that innocuous torrent but with the way things are going, in my opinion at least, its a silly thing to risk a reputation and finances on. The following however are skills with a potentially giant reward of getting your foot in an employers door, so keep these platforms and skills in mind.

  • Twitter. Enough said. For the few that don’t yet have/use Twitter, have you been living under a rock? For marketers, advertisers and PR execs, this is your bread and butter platform, so definitely make sure you have a profile and engage frequently in conversations with those you want to engage with.
    • Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. Both are great apps for making Twitter a lot easier to manage, Hootsuite is perhaps more commonly used, but I like Tweetdeck’s interface a lot.
  • Facebook. Not chatting to your mates of course, but learn how pages work and how to measure impact and engagement.
  • Google adwords. Research, learn, understand.
  • Learn how to blog using WordPress or Blogger.
  • Understand how to network and engage on LinkedIn beyond its use as an online CV.
  • Do video blogs and host your own YouTube channel.
  • Make use of Vine and learn the best ways to be creative/innovative. Experiment and see what works for you.
  • Learn the marketing potential of Instagram and consider how that relates to what you want to do/achieve.

Technical skills

For me, technical skills is a broad-brush term that includes all of the below plus many more I’m sure I’ve forgotten/haven’t come across. The perhaps annoying thing about web 2.0 is that its forever changing the goal posts BUT, saying that, its also a great opportunity to get really good, relatively quickly at a range of skills. Such as, for example:

  • Adobe Creative Suite, particularly: Photoshop, Lightroom and InDesign. For January only, Skillfeed are offering over 63’000 video tutorials for various software
  • Basic coding. It might seem daunting but websites like CodeAcademy are really simple to use and learn.

General skills

  • Language skills. Set yourself apart from your competition by learning a ‘business’ language i.e. French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin etc. It shows that you’re internationally minded and appreciate other cultures. It’s also a valuable commodity given that in the EU, we Brits are significantly disadvantaged in terms of foreign language ability.
  • Get a full drivers licence. Even if you don’t intend to ever own, drive or be in any way associated with a motorised vehicle, it ticks a super common box in application forms and is a basic technical skill of modern adulthood outside of inner-city London.

Experience

Very simple. Get some. It’s one of those things that shows you’re serious about what you claim to want to pursue a career in, and that you’ve impressed someone else within the industry in the past. Although payment for work is never guaranteed, and the jobs aren’t always the best, here are a few ways I’ve found work well to getting you noticed.

  • Volunteer to do PR for a local event or charity.
  • Volunteer in a local public sector business or for your University’s Media Department or Student Union.
  • Apply for internships here, there and everywhere. Though I’m a huge advocate for paid placements, if you can afford it, then widening your search to include unpaid short placements hugely increases your options.
  • Use your contacts and friends. Everyone knows someone and those ‘someones’ might well have your golden ticket to experience.