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An indispensable role at the top table

The former “Cinderella job” now decides the company’s fortunes.

The job of the Corporate Affairs Director used to be fairly simple. Their role was limited to communicating the decisions taken by a business in the most positive light. They had little or no input in the decisions themselves and very few channels to disseminate the information. Personal briefings or news releases were the main avenues. Getting coverage in the FT was the goal. Perhaps unfairly, the job was seen as well suited to those who had failed in other, more challenging areas of the business.

No one would make that mistake today. Quality media coverage may still be necessary, but it is totally insufficient. Anyone with the title finds themselves responsible for a much more complicated and expanded role covering internal communications and public outreach as well as media relations, while also being expected to advise the senior team on a wider range of issues in great depth. A thorough understanding of the operational side of the business is essential.

So is the political context in which the business operates. The role is highly political. I don’t mean old-fashioned lobbying – which may or may not be part of the job – but understanding the nuances and consequences of landing specific messages in specific markets. You need to know how messages will be received, interpreted and understood.

In today’s world as well, the days of handing down messages from on high or varying messages for different audiences are over. Whether businesses like it or not, their messages are just part of a much wider conversation going on about them. They must also be prepared for the fact that everything said, wherever it is said, will be heard and shared.

Look, for example, at the level of scrutiny on Western companies operating in Russia. Everything they say and do is closely watched – by the host government, by global competitors, by local competitors, by suppliers and by their own governments.

Nor is such intense scrutiny found only in supposedly complex markets. Scotland used to be a relatively predictable play but now is politically multi-dimensional. Companies that want to build a sustainable business there need to tread with great political sensitivity and great forethought and care. Communications is a strategic tool.

It is also why communications can no longer be kept at a distance from executive decision-making. Decisions at the top level need to be made within the context of knowing exactly how they will be articulated, who to tell in advance, whose approval and consent you need, and what impact they will have. This means a continual dialogue between the CEO and the Corporate Affairs Director on strategy and tactics.

Indeed, the modern-day CEO is not just a manager but the chief communicator. He or she is the ambassador, spokesman, narrator and negotiator in every country in which the company operates.

All this has led to a radical upgrading of communications, greatly enhancing the role of the Corporate Affairs Director. In order to fulfil their roles successfully, they need not only to be close to the CEO’s thinking but also in close physical proximity. They must have access at all times – giving counsel, sharing ideas, weighing up decisions and instilling confidence.

It is not just the role and demands on Corporate Affairs Directors which have been transformed. So have those of the CEO themselves. Those leading businesses used to be able to get to the top based on their technical skills alone. Top engineers with business acumen would become the CEOs of energy multinationals based on talents, skills and intuitions which were highly rational.

But this is no longer enough. The world they inhabit today is highly emotional, driven by competing passions and interests, examined by a competitive media desperate to find failure. If you run an energy company, you can’t avoid climate change, you can’t hide your history, and you can’t ignore the issues that come with investing abroad.

The modern CEO needs continually to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. That means not only knowing when to communicate, through which channel and format, but also how to communicate convincingly and empathetically. They rely on their senior communications team to guide them through this minefield.

It can also be a highly hostile environment. CEOs need to be extraordinarily resilient. When the unexpected happens – as it inevitably will – and the scrutiny on the pay and performance becomes intense and personal, it is the job of Corporate Affairs Directors to keep their CEOs focused on what matters. Here robust crisis communication plans – which have been regularly reviewed – are critical. Crisis communications, in my view, is the key test of performance.

This explains why communications is now a rite of passage for ambitious senior managers. Where even just 20 years ago the post of communications chief might be seen as one step away from an early retirement, now it’s regarded as the next step to the top job.

In fact, all CEOs should go through communications, learning the technicalities and mastering the nuances. Why do I say that? Because all the big corporate failures over the last decade have been failures of communications. As a result, the Corporate Affairs Director has gone from the Cinderella job to possibly the most important at the board table.

Nick Butler is the former Group Vice President for Policy and Strategy Development at BP. He is Visiting Professor and Chair of the Kings Policy Institute at Kings College London and writes a regular blog for the Financial Times.

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