Instructive: What do chairmen and chief executives expect of their communications directors?

Headhunters Ellwood and Atfield recently published the results of a survey they undertook with chairmen and chief executives designed to see how the role of communications director is evolving. The report is interesting reading as much for the people who responded – they include Sir Win Bischoff of Lloyds, Sir Christopher Gent of GSK, Dennis Holt of the Bank of Ireland and Hector Sants of the FSA – as what they said.

In summary, chief executives and chairmen clearly recognise the value the communication function provides, whether through managing investor, media, government, employee or other stakeholder relations. However, when it comes to rating the relative importance of the individual disciplines within the function, views vary considerably depending on the organisation’s particular circumstances.

Chief executives typically take their own role as the face of the company very seriously, and a surprisingly high number spend more than half of their time communicating with stakeholders in one form or another. They greatly value the role their communications director plays as a sounding board, and in providing stakeholder feedback, but their views differ starkly when it comes to the level and type of input that they expect their communications director to have to business strategy.

Views on the growth of new media also differ widely. Most participants agree that it is more difficult to manage or control communication about their organisation in such a broad and fragmented environment, but a few see the proliferation and fragmentation of the media as an opportunity for greater stakeholder interaction and more immediate feedback.

Here are my key takeaways from the report.

On working relationships:

  • In general, media relations no longer appears to have the eminence it once had in many communication functions, and in the majority of cases, equal, if not greater, importance is placed on other stakeholders including government, investors and employees.
  • Several chief executives regard internal communication as a personal priority and take an active role in engaging with staff, whether through face to face meetings, online or in print,.
  • Communications directors who can draw on broadly-based experience, and flex resources according to changing business needs, will clearly be in demand.
  • While functional experience and good practical communication skills tend to be taken “as read” within the communications director’s job description, many participants speak of the importance they place on trustworthiness, integrity and judgement.
  • The ability to provide a line to the outside world and feed back on how the business is viewed both internally and externally is greatly valued, and participants commonly speak of the vital role their communications director plays as a “sounding board” or “sanity check” on business activities and strategies.

On the CEO’s own role in communications:

  • About two thirds of those interviewed estimate they spend 30 per cent or more of their time communicating with their various constituents, and many of them believe they spend at least half of their time on communication-related activities.

On the rise of ‘new media’:

  • Many of those interviewed see the need for more proactive media monitoring and brand management than in the past, although not all have a clear idea of what this will look like.
  • The alignment of internal and external communication is seen as a key issue in an environment where messages can reach both audiences instantaneously.
  • Several of those interviewed saw media expansion and the advent of social networks as a positive development, citing benefits such as the ability to target customers better, and to get faster and more frequent feedback.

Media relations is neither more nor less important as a result of the changes – just more difficult. – Sir Christopher Gent, Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline

Download a copy of the full report.

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