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The disruption of corporate communications

I was reading a report on the next generation of communications leaders, when I came across the following simple sentence: 

“Communications is arguably one of the most disrupted professions.” 

This declaration set me back on my heels. To tell the truth, it kind of shocked me. When I imagine disrupted professionals, I think of newspaper reporters, retail merchants, music executives, steelworkers, television producers and dozens of others whose industries are in upheaval. But I never really thought of my own profession as disrupted. 

But there it was, right in my face. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the report was accurate. The world of corporate communications has been disassembled, and we are in various stages of disarray, evolution and transformation. 

Agencies have been the first to shed the old models, and not surprisingly: For agencies, transformation and adaptation is an economic necessity. The old maxim of “change or die” is critically relevant to purveyors of communications services, and so they have evolved. They’ve expanded their offerings, recast their value propositions, and experimented with business models. 

Consider these taglines from some of the world’s largest PR firms: 

“We move people.”
“We solve.”
“We build influence and deliver impact.” 

Yes, but what exactly do they do? PR agencies now offer everything from full-service paid advertising, to social listening, to digital marketing, to management consulting, and, yes, of course, they still sell old-fashioned media relations. 

On the client side, in-house departments are being forced to reorganize and reimagine themselves as they grapple with the complex realities of a digital society. Communications functions are being asked to lead enterprise-wide initiatives ranging from employee engagement, to change management, to social activism, to early identification and escalation of enterprise risk. Complicating these challenges is the reality that traditional organizational structures — and the existing talent pools — are not up to the task. Staff must be retrained, new roles and responsibilities must be mapped, and advanced skills must be developed or acquired. 

I’ve had the good fortune of working with two of the more visionary chief communications officers, and when they talk about the future of the function it’s with language I’ve never heard before from communications professionals. 

One revealed that her department is using artificial intelligence to scan 20,000 outlets a day in order to provide a daily briefing that’s relevant and impactful. “We’re a little bit like the CIA,” she says, “we’re an intelligence group.” 

Another is investing in predictive analytics. “You have to be able to create actionable intelligence to know where the puck is heading,” he says. “We can now track stakeholder behavior. We can do social listening. We can look at correlations and patterns. Bringing that all together is critically important for our organization.” 

The wisest insight he shared, and one that should be heeded by every leader of a communications department, is boldly challenging: “We have to position our function as a value center, not a cost center. We must constantly ask the question: What is the value that we’re driving?” 

It’s a great and relevant question, and one that will ultimately help us manage through disruption, rather than extinction.

To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.