FRANKFURT — The operating environment for companies and brands is more complex than ever after a tumultuous three-year period that saw a global pandemic, social upheaval, a reassessment of how we work and war in Europe – but these challenges also present an opportunity for communicators to accelerate their value in a world where trust, credibility and reputation are at a premium, according to speakers at the PRovoke EMEA Summit last week.

Chairing a panel entitled ‘The Gamechanging Power of PR’, PRovoke Media founder and chair Paul Holmes set the scene for a wide-ranging conversation on the ongoing transformation of the industry: “There are a lot of people in communications who are suddenly being asked questions about not just what to say, but what to do. PR and corporate communications people are being asked to analyse the geopolitical and reputational risks of doing business with Russia, for instance – we’re being asked questions we weren’t being asked five years ago. At the same time, there are a lot of CEOs who didn’t train for this and are not prepared for this vast array of issues they are suddenly being asked to have opinions about and know the intricacies of.”

Nevashnee Naicker, head of corporate communications at Anglo American – and a recipient of the PRovoke Media individual achievement award at the SABRE Awards last week – said the result of this new world order was that the communications fraternity was having “a fantastic Cinderella moment.” She expanded: “We used to be the runt of the corporate functions litter: overlooked, always poor, and not given the attention we needed, but we have come of age.

“But having a seat at the table isn’t like you kiss the prince and live happily ever after: now we have to do something. We have such an incredible opportunity to really shape what that future will look like: how do we start informing, shaping and guiding? Communications has become a really important point of convergence in an organisation, where most functions look vertically but comms has to have this overview across everything the business is doing and make sure it is coherent. We live in an always on world, where information is democratised and your reputation and credibility, founded on trust, mean that you have to be the voice of wisdom – and for people to take it seriously. Nothing happens in my world any more without it passing through the communications function.”

Abhinav Kumar, chief marketing and communications officer for global markets at TCS, agreed that the pandemic was “an inflection point” for the communications function. “The profession should be jumping into the front passenger seat, next to the CEO driving the car, and advising her on where she should be going. The biggest complement I ever got from CEO was ‘you do everything I do – you need to know our business, risks, stakeholders and how to deal with them – the only difference is I also have P&L responsibility. All the other things, you need to watch my back.’ Being a CCO is a tough role, you are acting as a coach to the CEO, at the same time where you own profession is seeing so much change and innovation. We need to advise CEOs in a fractured world.”

Kumar said there were still yet more ways in which PR professionals could play a role in supporting CEOs, including in technology: “It’s evolving so fast, generative AI is exploding, as are comms tech and marketing tech – I saw a statistic that from the 150 tools available to our profession in 2010, this has grown to 9,932 this year. The ability of the comms department to keep up to pace with what’s out there and what they should be using is difficult – if agencies can create centres of technology excellence, that might be the next line of service.”

At TRACCS, one of the largest independent PR agencies in the Middle East, chief executive Mohamed Al Ayed said: “The whole concept of trusted advisor is where comms should be. We are competent in and able to deliver communications narrative, strategy, content, counsel – and we do that well. When someone comes in and asks us things beyond our core competencies – around business, shareholder returns, investments – we don’t say no, but we don’t take the whole responsibility. That’s responsible communications. I don’t believe we have seen the last transformation of the comms industry – it’s not finished, it’s just getting started.”

Looking further back, the panel also reviewed the medium-term impact on companies and communicators of the two events that arguably kicked off the corporate ESG movement: the open letter from BlackRock chairman Larry Fink in 2018 to CEOs and investors outlining a new focus on ESG credentials and stakeholders other than shareholders when making investment decisions; and, in 2019, the Business Round Table in the US overturning a 22-year old position statement to reimagine its definition of corporate purpose, from profit to sustainability.

Holmes said: “Those two things taken together suddenly created a prominence for the management of stakeholder relationships that was more elevated within an organisation than ever before – and that job of understanding and listening to stakeholders and figuring out what they expect and how to deliver on it is exactly what corporate communications is all about. You can make the case that the fact the communications industry has flourished as much as it has over the past five years can be traced to that.”

Naicker agreed: “Those companies that had already imbibed the idea of caring for society and the planet and thinking about reputation in terms of ethics, how we manage risk and how we think about human rights had already done really well. But that moment highlighted the importance of thinking about environment, society and governance issues in a way where we could measure what success looked like.

“AngloAmerican, for instance, is in mining, which has a bad reputation, but is also the industry that is producing the metals and minerals needed for decarbonisation, so repositioning the relevance of mining has become a really important comms job. It means we have to consider how we produce those metals in a cleaner, greener, more efficient way, how that impacts the natural environment positively, what opportunities it unlocks for the communities around us in terms of jobs and the local economy. ESG is a beautiful catalyst for companies that are purpose-driven to demonstrate that purpose in a tangible way.”

Kumar said the focus on ESG in recent years had made the discussion of purpose more mainstream, and that had been good for the purpose of PR itself: “We’ve come a long way and most chief communications officers now have a seat on the executive committee. We’re not quite all in the boardroom yet but our influence in the C-suite is increasing. It’s a challenging and more complex world, every day brings new challenges to deal with and a lot of it gets thrown to the communications department to create a strategy and respond to.

“The role of the CCO is also expanding – many are now taking direct responsibility for sustainability within their organisations, for instance, so it’s much more strategic. In order to be a strong leader, you need a strong CCO standing behind you, so there’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of responsibility, including for agencies as our partners.”

Al Ayed said the new focus on credibility, reputation and trust that had emerged over the past few years had led to PR becoming a “premium industry”: “Separately, those things mean nothing, but together they are a powerful dynamic. Mix them up and you get responsibility – we’ve now reached the stage all over the world where it’s about responsible communications, and companies that had already done that were ready for this new world order. We are a premium industry and if people recognise that it means they are going to invest in it.”

As for whether CEOs should feel under pressure to have a point of view on every aspect of the new world order, considering the current friction between social capitalism and a pushback against “woke” capitalism, Kumar said: “Any societal issue a business weighs in on should be careful and deliberate, because you truly believe it’s the right thing to do for your business and all your stakeholders.

“In the exco there needs to be intense debate on what you weigh in on and what you don’t – there are many cautionary tales of business that have had negative impact from weighing in on issues. But if something is right to do, you do it. It’s not just Gen Z driving this – even older generations expect brands to play a strong social role and are more likely to buy a product if that brand works on social issues that are important to them. If you are ever advising clients to capture a headline or to jump on board a moment, it’s a huge mistake and you will pay for it.”

Naiker added: “If you don’t look, consider, opine on and make a decision about how transformation – from ESG to DEI – is going to affect you and your business, it’s like corporate Darwinism – you’re not fit to survive if you’re not adapting.”

And she concluded that in modern organisations, subordination, courage and speaking truth to power were increasingly important for communicators: “We have to challenge, and have the confidence to say: that sounds like a good idea, but it’s not. It starts with us.”