The 2023 Edelman Future of Corporate Communications Study is out, and it’s a doozy filled with all sorts of great things for communicators to consider going into next year. It details some of the things we’ve seen happen in real-time, such as comms pros finally getting that coveted seat at the table and being seen as advisors in business decisions, not just as it relates to media.
There has been a shift in how CEOs, in particular, view communicators and their expertise—not just for the latest crisis or product launch but for the business, overall. They are leaning on their comms team for advice on social justice, climate and environmental, DEI, and health and wellness initiatives.
Comms leaders are managing this new dynamic from the inside out, which means they will be at the center of shaping the next phase of stakeholder capitalism.
While all of that is happening, though, resources are not keeping pace, with most communicators predicting budgets will not grow in 2024.
How Communications Is Evolving
Last week, we talked about the good—and bad—news from the chief marketing office survey from Deloitte and the American Marketing Association.
In it, we discussed how to prepare for next year based on the trends coming out of surveys like that and like this Edelman one. I’m here today to give you some more food for thought as you prepare for what’s to come.
The Edelman study focused on five areas:
- The central role of communications;
- Post-pandemic communications;
- CEO expectations and trust;
- The evolving role of the chief of corporate communications; and
- The challenges ahead.
Let’s go through each of them.
The Central Role of Communications
There is really good news for communicators coming out of this survey. Half of respondents view themselves as strategic advisors to business leaders, which is an increase from 35% in 2021.
This is a significant evolution from a supportive service to a strategy advisory role—and it matches what we’ve experienced with our clients, too. We are now involved in shaping key business strategies, influencing decision-making, and crafting narratives that resonate with internal and external stakeholders.
Just as the study indicates, we also spend more time in direct counsel with CEOs, reflecting a deeper integration of our expertise in the highest levels of corporate decision-making.
As you think about next year, some things to consider include how to:
- Become pivotal in leading change
- Manage transitions
- Help to shift corporate culture
- Adapt to new market realities
- Actively drive change
- Ensure the narrative aligns with the company’s strategic direction
Never has the reputation of a brand been more important. As we help our organizations or client’s organizations navigate through controversies, we can also help to maintain public confidence.
I was just reminded that the Cubs won the World Series seven years ago…and the world fell apart the next day. Literally, the next day. While we say the last three years have been the hardest, the U.S. has been in crisis since 2016. It has ushered in an era of uncertainty and rapid change, which has forced businesses to re-evaluate and, in some cases, overhaul their communications strategies.
There have certainly been challenges, but it also has completely changed the way we work and the way executives see us.
Many assumed we would return to market-centric issues, but the opposite has been found. The reality has been that the marketplace thrives when the workplace does, so communicators have continued to focus.
We have seen a shift in how employees behave—from being vocal in holding companies accountable to being equipped with the will and the tools to effect change.
While the study focuses mainly on the relationship between the CEO and communicators, it does show that when there are also alliances with HR, the company is stronger. Sixty percent of respondents said this will be a priority in 2024.
As you think about your work:
- How strong is your relationship with HR?
- What are you doing to enhance employee engagement?
These are areas to focus on next year.
CEO Expectations and Trust
The shift we have seen in the last few years, as is evidenced by the Future of Corporate Communications Study, has been from focusing on business metrics to encompassing social responsibility, employee welfare, and the ability to engender trust. We are in an era of skepticism and change—almost no one trusts government or media anymore, but places a higher value on organizations that are perceived to get it right when it comes to social, society, and community issues.
As part of that, CEOs are now expected to stand up for what they believe in—to promote an organization’s values, which are oftentimes closely aligned with their own. They are expected to take the helm in confronting pressing issues and to ensure the well-being of their employees.
Because most business leaders “grew up,” so to speak, with the understanding that they were not to discuss values or views on social issues, they are leaning on communicators to help them learn a new way to communicate. To put their organizations at the heart of the conversation about the role of business in society.
In a climate where misinformation and distrust are prevalent, the CEO’s ability to communicate effectively and act decisively is crucial in maintaining and building trust. This is what communicators do.
As you consider the work you move toward in 2024, think about the following:
- Do you have at least a weekly meeting with the CEO to discuss priorities, strategy, and messaging?
- Are you appropriately articulating the CEO’s vision, values, and responses to global issues?
- Is the messaging clear, consistent, and authentic?
- Do you address societal challenges that engender employees and customers?
Trust, transparency, and responsiveness are the pillars upon which their leadership must rest, and communicators are vital allies in this endeavor.
The Evolving Role of the CCO
The chief communications officer has traditionally stewarded a company’s narrative, managing public perception and safeguarding reputation. But we are seeing a significant evolution, expanding our services into new strategic dimensions and demanding a broader skill set than ever before.
One of the most salient points in the Edelman study is the transformation into a strategic advisor. No longer confined to media relations and news releases, communicators are becoming indispensable to CEOs and other top executives. With nearly a fifth of their time now devoted to advising on a broad range of business issues, communicators influence decision-making at the highest levels.
This shift marks a departure from the traditional view of communications as a downstream function, moving it upstream to where business strategies are conceived and developed.
We are now tasked with understanding and balancing the needs of various stakeholders, from employees and customers to investors and regulators. This complex juggling act requires a deep understanding of stakeholder dynamics and the ability to communicate in a manner that resonates with each group’s values and expectations. It also means we’re working with the CEO and CFO, HR leaders, sales leaders, marketing, and general counsel more consistently.
Think about where you are with the following and what you can add in next year:
- Do you have a fluid and flexible crisis management plan?
- How are you helping the organization build resilience?
- Do you have solid relationships with everyone in the C-suite? What about external experts such as the law firm?
- How are you reviewing data every month? Are you using it to tell stories to all stakeholders?
- Is your team equipped with the tools and skills necessary to communicate effectively in the digital age?
- Are you testing AI and how it can make you and your team more efficient?
- Do you spend time reading every day to understand how global issues will affect the organization(s) you work with?
For the first time in my career, we have a gigantic opportunity to engage at a higher level. It’s a fun time to do what we do!
The Challenges Ahead
Of course, with opportunities come challenges…because nothing can be easy.
The first challenge is something we’ve been talking about for years: demonstrating our value as an investment versus an expense. It’s incredibly difficult to measure the things we’ve talked about here: brand awareness, resiliency, trust, engagement, and more.
This is why I continue to beat the PESO Model™ drum. When you add the other media types to the brand building and crisis management activities expected of you, you can measure your work effectively. The results are tangible and are aligned with what your marketing and advertising colleagues can demonstrate.
Beyond measuring your efforts, which should be your priority, the study suggests that communicators not only keep abreast of the latest digital tools and platforms but also become adept at leveraging these technologies to enhance their messaging and reach.
With the digital landscape constantly evolving, staying current requires an ongoing investment in learning and development, as well as the agility to tweak strategies in response to new channels and trends.
The Edelman study also highlights the need for nuanced strategies that resonate with diverse audiences while maintaining a cohesive brand narrative. Those audiences range from digitally savvy consumers to socially conscious investors and people who still can’t figure out how to change the clock on their microwave.
This requires a deep understanding of stakeholder perceptions, concerns, and communication preferences.
The biggest challenge you will face next year is the resource gap. There is a lot for you to think about next year, and there are lots of growing demands forthcoming, but resources will fail to keep pace.
You will continue to be expected to do more with less and stretch budgets with an already thin bandwidth. This resource strain can lead to burnout and limit your ability to deliver strategic value. Closing this gap is not just about securing more budget; it’s about advocating for the strategic importance of communications and its role in driving business success.
- Can you directly link your communications efforts to business outcomes?
- How integrated are you with other departments? Beyond having relationships with the business leaders, are you supporting cross-discipline initiatives?
- How deep is your understanding of the business, and can you speak the language of each department?
- What are you doing to advocate for more budget so you and your team don’t burn out?
The Future of Communications
While the study celebrates the elevation of communicators, it also soberly acknowledges the challenges ahead.
From demonstrating value and integrating across the enterprise to keeping pace with technology, managing complex stakeholder relationships, addressing resource constraints, and preparing for crises, we have our work cut out.
Tackling these challenges head-on will be vital to maintaining the strategic relevance and effectiveness of what you do next year and beyond.