A corporate affairs function for the modern world

25 Jul 2016

A corporate affairs function for the modern world

Few functions have been through as profound a transformation as Corporate Communications

In today’s world of instant news and citizen journalism, reputation can make or break a balance sheet. Safeguarding reputation is a critical concern of the Board, and Corporate Affairs teams are responsible for handling a multitude of conversations in a meaningful, content-rich way.

Nowhere is the transformation of Corporate Communications more relevant than the financial services sector, where businesses have had to defend and rebuild reputation while developing new skills, perspectives and relationships to engage with rigorous regulators.

Public Affairs teams have reached record high numbers, with individuals recruited for their insight into government and ability to lobby and influence.

Delivering cut-through

As global communications become increasingly complex and de-centralised, communications professionals must evaluate messaging not only through Facebook or other US social media giants (Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube) but also players such as VK (Vkontakte) in Russia and Sina Weibo, Renren and QZone in China. Moreover, the early years of this decade saw the advent of chat and messaging apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Kik, LINE and KakaoTalk. These have such sophisticated functionality that they are already mimicking traditional social media platforms.

At the same time, internal communications has become an increasingly important specialism as businesses look to employees as brand ambassadors and rely on various internal channels to inform business change.

As a relatively new function, strategic, creative internal communications professionals can be difficult to find, and the function still has mixed reporting lines, into HR or communications.  This complexity is compounded by the often ambiguous nature of their roles, often resulting in a tug of war between marketing and communications departments. In some businesses, professionals sit in all the main business units, allowing them to respond in a quick and context-rich manner.

Team makeup

Corporate Affairs teams have expanded in remit and can encompass pretty much anything and everything that may impact on a business’s brand and reputation. The size and seniority of a Corporate Affairs team depends on the engagement of the CEO, use of external consultancies and if commercial success hinges on regulatory alignment and/or public perception. Titles can blur and mean different things in different businesses. However, a robust team generally consists of the following specialities:

  • Brand marketing
  • Corporate brand
  • Corporate responsibility
  • Digital communications
  • Employee engagement
  • Government/ Public Affairs
  • Media Relations
  • Public Policy
  • Regulatory development
  • Social media engagement
  • Thought leadership

Investor Relations professionals are sometimes included in the Corporate Affairs function but work most frequently as part of the finance function, with a close link with communications.

Communication experts are usually able to adapt to work in a variety of sectors and types of business. The demands of globalisation and pace of change call for businesses to bring in fresh experience and perspectives from different companies, sectors and geographies, thereby putting some healthy ‘grit in the oyster’.

Personal characteristics

The communications function is unique in the emphasis it places on personal characteristics. Judgement, emotional intelligence and intellectual dexterity are often as important as a particular experience due to the importance of building relationships with varied internal and external stakeholders. Communications professionals tend to be clever, interested and quick to gauge the subtleties of a business culture.

In the most senior Director roles, almost two-thirds of FTSE 100 Directors were cross-sector hires, suggesting that industry expertise is not seen as a prerequisite for top-level leadership roles. Interestingly, however, within financial services 67 per cent of Corporate Communication Directors came from another financial services business. This is perhaps unsurprising considering ever-increasing levels of public, regulatory and government scrutiny.

FTSE 100 Communications Director career path

FTSE 100 Communications Directors career origins

FTSE 100 Communications directors' origins. Source: Odgers Berndtson.

FTSE 100 Communications Directors career

FTSE 100 Communications directors' destinations. Source: Odgers Berndtson.

The two most common career backgrounds for corporate affairs directors in the FTSE 100 are media relations and government/public affairs, with just six coming from journalism. Those with shorter tenures in communications roles spent their earlier years in journalism, finance, economics, law, investor relations or strategic planning.

While leadership, team structure, skills, characteristics and experience are all essential ingredients for a successful function, Corporate Affairs professionals cannot succeed in isolation. Success depends on content quality and the engagement of employees across their businesses.

The role of the Corporate Affairs function is changing fast, becoming integrated with wider business functions and contributing broadly to strategy. As the financial services sector attempts to turn the tide of public opinion, it is critical that it recruits those who can relate to various audiences and provide creative solutions that address the pace of change.