Part 3 of 3 of my conversation with Paul Holmes, Founder of The Holmes Report
In the third part of our series, I asked Paul about the future for leaders of communications at today’s companies. Here is our exchange.
Q: I am seeing the communications and marketing functions quietly morph due to the importance of online. How will communication leader’s jobs change? Do you see future CMO’s coming increasingly out of the communications arena?
Paul: This is a huge question.
First, I too see a convergence of marketing and communications. I just don’t think it makes sense to view corporate reputation and product or brand image as separate and distinct. If you’re building a service brand, communicating the brand values to employees is just as important as communicating them to customers—without employees they won’t be authentic, and inauthenticity is fatal in the digital realm. And corporate behavior influences product choices: if Nestle is using palm oil that destroys the habitat of gorillas, people are going to boycott its chocolate bars. Is that a corporate issue or a marketing one? If you’re introducing a new product, you have to understand the regulatory implications. Again, corporate or marketing? Both, obviously.
I have long held that companies need to have a person in the C-suite, providing input into decision-making – not just communicating decisions after the fact – responsible for managing the relationship between an organization and all of its stakeholders: consumers, employees, shareholders, communities, regulators and legislators. I would call that job “public relations.” I think it’s pretty close to the vision the founders of this profession had for the industry. But that’s not the job most PR people have grown up doing.
So the question is this: Is it easier for marketers to learn the very different rules of communicating about serious corporate issues, to balance the needs of all those stakeholders, to learn how to hold conversations rather than “scratch out pictures on a wall” as you put it in your book, to think about engagement rather than message delivery, to focus on relationships rather than on sales? Or it is easier for corporate communications people to become genuine counselors to senior management, to learn how to manage multi-billion dollar advertising budgets, to focus on return-on-investment and business metrics?
I’d like to think those coming from the PR side have a more suitable background, but I think marketing people are used to having greater responsibility and bigger budgets and I think CEOs are used to thinking of PR occupying a lower rung on the corporate ladder, so I don’t think it’s clear cut. At the end of the day, it will probably come down to individuals. You’ll see exceptional PR people – like Jon Iwata at IBM or Beth Comstock at GE or Christa Carone at Xerox – add CMO to their corporate communications title. But in consumer goods companies, I suspect people from a traditional marketing background will hold their own.
Q: What are the key areas of competence that are important for communicators to learn tomorrow that may have been disregarded a year ago? In other words, how well do we need to understand technology or marketing models or e-commerce?
Paul: Let’s start with analytics, because I think this industry has attracted people who are generally better storytellers than they are number crunchers. But we’re going to see a need for creative ideas that are informed by hard data about consumers and other stakeholders, and that are measured with a real rigor. Senior professionals need to familiarize themselves with the numbers underpinning the net promoter score metric. They need to be able to look at regression analysis and isolate the impact of one communications channel, or one key message.
If that’s the most important “hard” skill, the most important “soft” skill has to be listening. I have a friend who says PR people are perfectly capable at having one half of a good conversation, which means they are strong when it comes to delivering the corporate or brand message, not so strong when it comes to hearing the response. But in a world of engagement, transparency, dialogue, conversation, listening may be the most important ability of all, and it’s not as easy as monitoring everything and distilling it down into a dashboard—it involves the ability to take part in a conversation in such a way that you elicit people’s true thoughts and true beliefs about your product and your company.
Finally, there’s a personal characteristic that I think is as important as either of those two things, and that’s courage. I think courage is the quality that defines a true counselor. It’s required because often your job as a counselor is to tell the CEO and other senior executives the news they really don’t want to hear. And your job as public relations counselor is often to say, this make money this quarter, and it may be perfectly legal, but it is going to have a corrosive effect on our relationship with one (or more) of our key stakeholders. It’s going to reduce the number of advocates, or increase the number of detractors, and by doing that it’s going to destroy value over the long term.
(And of course you have the analytics to demonstrate why you believe that to be true, and you have the listening skills to understand why your stakeholders are going to react that way.)
Paul, I want to thank you for great insights in our 3 part series. All the best, Bob