The evolving role of corporate affairs within your business
Within every organisation, the role of corporate affairs will be moulded by the needs of its operations. Nonetheless, in every company, that role should be expanding to encompass stakeholder management, reputational risk reduction and promotion of a single, authentic message.
The tides of capitalism are flowing ever more strongly in the direction of stakeholder-centric models. Consequently, it’s more important than ever to understand the parts played by stakeholders and the impact of different stakeholder groups on your business. To meet the priorities of your stakeholders, you need effective stakeholder engagement. And stakeholder engagement, through corporate communications, is the responsibility of the corporate affairs function.
In a landscape where wider society is increasingly invested in corporate behaviours, the ability to effectively communicate with multiple stakeholders is invaluable. This gives corporate affairs leaders greater influence. Business critical areas including corporate reputation and reputational risk, corporate social responsibility and environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are increasingly central to their evolving role.
The hyper-transparent, interconnected world engendered by social media and a 24/7 news cycle has made corporate activity the purview of every citizen journalist, campaigning NGO and hostile media outlet. More resilient, sophisticated communications strategies are required. Business leaders need to redefine the responsibilities of corporate affairs, maximising its ability to influence both internal and external stakeholders. The leadership team of any forward-looking business should include the corporate communications director.
The functions of corporate affairs
The original model of corporate affairs was that of a single, one-way channel to the external world. It was activated when the business wanted to advertise its activities, or refute negative reporting. Communications were controlled and messages spun to achieve short-term goals. Crisis management was the knee-jerk reaction to reputational damage. Investors were the stakeholders at the top of the priority list for any comms output.
This type of self-contained, hyper-managed, inside-out engagement is no longer appropriate or even feasible. Public affairs needs to be an organisation’s two-way relationship with its stakeholders.
Evolved corporate affairs skills encompass internal communications and external communications, covering every aspect of the business, and directed to all stakeholders. This includes employees, the board, investors, customers, suppliers, the wider community and the media. Its tangible tasks include PR, government, investor, community and customer relations. Also public policy, ESG statements and oversight of advertising messaging. Specific roles will vary between organisations, depending on their communications strategy.
Engagement is never switched off. It is multi-channel, multi-level and global. Communications plans are long-term, sustainable, and take a multi-stakeholder approach. To meet these needs, corporate affairs must function in partnership with other departments, promoting joined-up communications both internally and externally.
In a world where information has been democratised to a greater extent than ever before, organisations cannot control the flow of information. Internet news sites and the spread of social media have altered the reach, speed and spread of reporting, be it positive or negative. Businesses can be held accountable for their private decision making as much as for as their public announcements. In a landscape where all stakeholders have influence, the role of corporate affairs is that of navigator rather than helmsman.
Evolution of the corporate affairs role
The unlocking of corporate information has broadened the role of corporate affairs teams in recent years. Corporate affairs directors have a more holistic role, as a conduit standing at an intersection of different company departments rather than siloed off as an independent function. They have a remit to bring different perspectives to internal teams and a more in-depth view of the business to external stakeholders. A connected communications team’s responsibilities include:
• Facilitating internal connections: Authenticity is crucial for stakeholder centric businesses, walking the talk in all aspects of their operations. Connecting business decisions and behaviours to the core principles is the first step. The second is a consistent, clear narrative, communicated across the business to a diverse internal audience. The larger the organisation, the more complex the task of keeping the message authentic and consistent.
• Connecting externally: Far beyond the scope of the traditional, one-size-fits-all two-dimensional press release, today’s communications teams mastermind multimedia messaging across myriad channels to reach carefully targeted audiences. Corporate comms need to speak to the priorities of external stakeholders, balancing the concerns of each. And while doing so, maintain the consistency and authenticity of voice that underpins high quality, long-term relationships and avoids reputational risk.
• Bringing the outside-in perspective: In the echo chamber of the boardroom, it’s easy to lose sight of how your business operations are perceived by the external world. Secondary stakeholders such as suppliers, clients and the local community will have a view on internal decisions. This view may not be apparent to the leadership team, but could pose substantial risk to the business. A well-connected communications function attuned to external opinions can highlight unanticipated reactions to corporate behaviours and help to shape more acceptable courses of action.
• Managing reputation risk: All of the above roles feed into the area of reputation risk. In managing connections between the business and its stakeholders, the corporate affairs leader can surface and deflect actions that might damage the organisation’s reputation. This involves sourcing and processing huge volumes of content from many different sources. As well as overseeing all the communications from the company, corporate affairs must have sight of any and all communications about the company. In an anarchic, hyper-connected media environment, this is a Herculean task.
The future of corporate affairs
In order to fulfil this multi-faced role, the corporate affairs team of the future will need to be hybridised, working within all departments, rather than functioning as an independent group. The separate remits of media relations, internal comms and investor relations will all give way to stakeholder relations. Future blueprints for the corporate affairs function will likely include:
• New settings: Being located within customer, supplier or investor organisations, even potentially media outlets, to give greater understanding of, and access to, the issues emerging among external stakeholders. Working with local communities to understand their priorities is only possible on the ground.
• A global perspective: In the post-pandemic, pan-global business world, where talent could potentially be based anywhere in the world, the comms function needs to tailor cultural messaging.
• Managing stakeholder intelligence: The corporate affairs director will also be the stakeholder intelligence director, driving the use of technology solutions that can capture, sort, and analyse vast quantities of data from thousands of sources, in multiple languages. AI and machine learning will provide sentiment analysis, and the comms leader will feed the intelligence sourced into board-level decision making.
• The guardians of reputation: Employing stakeholder intelligence to flag potential issues will allow the communications function to surface and deflect some reputation-damaging events before they occur, and react in a rapid and strategic way to those that are unavoidable.
• Supporting cultural change: In the wake of COP26, and the need to address the climate crisis, organisations need to make seismic shifts in the way they operate. The corporate affairs team will forge and disseminate the messaging required to achieve these ends. This means uniting stakeholders in working to a common goal, ensuring authenticity trumps greenwashing, and achieving meaningful progress towards a universal goal.
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