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Stop fighting fires

Corporate Affairs teams need to ensure they aren’t lit in the first place.

· Catriona McNaughton,Social Licence,Corporate Affairs

Traditionally, the role of the Corporate Affairs professional was to curate the reputation of an organisation through precise schedule of well-planned meetings and vetted engagement with traditional media; but the last 30 years has seen the profession facing the growing challenge of an increasingly dynamic communications landscape.

The rise of electronics communications generally, first with email and later with the explosion of social media, has changed the playing field for Corporate Affairs. Isolated events, such as a poorly worded email by an individual staff member to their external equivalent, or a comment misinterpreted and republished in the media, can dramatically impact on the business’s social licence to operate.

As the 2018 KPMG-AICD Trust Survey indicated, trust is key to how a business can execute on its mission and ensuring all the parts of the business are aligned when it comes to external engagement is paramount.

Corporate Affairs teams can be working at a gold standard of external engagement but find their efforts undermined and destabilised by a lack of internal buy-in and understanding of their role of in ensuring the successful operation of the business. They are increasingly being blindsided and spending significant time putting out fires rather than clearing a path for successful operations.

Corporate Affairs is no longer delivered solely by corporate affairs professionals. Instead it is their responsibility to manage, support and often rectify the activities of staff across the business. They don’t plan and often aren’t involved in the majority of meetings with external stakeholders and they are more often reacting to media stories than actively pushing them. Instead of cultivating reputation, their time is spent protecting reputation by catching things before they completely break.

Ideally, we would assume that staff would consider the broader impacts of their decision making on the business, or the appropriateness of an email sent to an external colleague. But employees are usually chosen and then overtasked with specific deliverables, and responsibility for reputation is either barely considered or seen as a tangential task that gets in the way of achieving their goals. This situation, along with a cultural, and in many cases physical, barrier between operational staff and corporate teams, hinders the ability for the Corporate Affairs teams to manage potential issues proactively. This is not to say that all staff should be experts in Corporate Affairs but upskilling and developing a broader knowledge of relevant issues can significantly alter the workload for everyone involved.

Connecting the dots between internal operations and external stakeholder engagement is the new frontier of successful corporate affairs. If the Corporate Affairs team no longer controls this delivery, then the business needs to develop and facilitate internal discussions about the importance of reputation in enabling all roles to operate efficiently. Each business unit needs to understand why, from their point of view, building and maintaining a good organisational profile is important, and to recognise where working in partnership with Corporate Affairs will make their job easier. They also need to be savvy in recognising where their daily tasks might start to have a wider business impact, and the appropriate matters to link in Corporate Affairs early. Developing a culture of collaboration and raising the profile of Corporate Affairs teams within the business is the key strategy to manage reputation risk.

With staff on board, providing the right information and communicating well, the Corporate Affairs team can focus on preventing potential fires in the first place, rather than constantly putting them out. Successful Corporate Affairs teams are leading and supporting the entire staff, reviewing their operating environment, discussing the risk portfolio of individual units, and building the internal capacity and capability across the whole organisation to deliver a favourable external reputation. In this way, Corporate Affairs teams can take control and get back to the real job of building, rather than just protecting, the business’s licence to operate.

Catriona McNaughton is the Communications Analyst at FPL Advisory.

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