Few business functions have experienced the level of inflation in both status and salary enjoyed by the in-house PR professional. When I first started in the industry the corporate press officer was a relatively junior role, responsible for writing the chairman’s speeches and dealing with occasional press enquiries. The last 20 years has seen its elevation to the exalted status of the corporate communications chief – the person paid a substantial salary to polish the corporate reputation, keep the critics at bay and the stakeholders happy. They have done their job so well that far too many of their internal audiences – especially those occupying the c-suite – have bought in to the idea that the world around them can be controlled, critics silenced and crises managed. Unfortunately, in a world in which trust is at a premium, influence is dispersed and criticism is cheap, these masters (or mistresses) of corporate spin are struggling. Stories can no longer be buried with a quiet word to your mate on the city desk.
Many years ago I worked for a financial and corporate communications agency which used to go into client pitches with two boards. On one board was written the word ‘friends’ and on the other ‘control’. The message was simple, compelling and, given the spectacular growth of the agency since that time, highly profitable: ‘We are friends with the handful of people whose opinions matter most in the valuation of stock prices or forming of corporate reputations and we know how to control the messages that they receive and transmit.’
Things have certainly changed since those simple times. Authority and expertise have been dispersed to the extent that analysts are no longer reliant on personal briefings and are picking up their information from the web, and opinion formers are just as likely to be obscure bloggers operating out of their bedrooms as professional journalists or eminent academics. And the CEO is starting to ask why sites critical of the company are starting to appear at the top of the Google rankings. You are paid a big salary to stop this type of stuff from appearing, or at least that’s what you told them. Welcome to the new world of the public affairs or corporate communications director: chaotic, complicated and largely unspinnable. It requires a completely new set of skills, in which an understanding of social media, behavioural psychology and influencer marketing is far more important than a bulging contacts list on your BlackBerry. It is a world in which many of the people currently occupying the leading corporate affairs roles are going to struggle.