IABC Report: C-Suite Wants PR to Cut Through the Digital Noise, Be Budget-Savvy and (Maybe) Help With Diversity

There’s no question that professional communicators want to be more involved in creating business strategy for the C-suite. But how do business leaders really value the communications function?

At the IABC Conference June 5 in Montreal, a cross-industry panel of three senior leaders opened up about the business value of communications at their organizations. (Spoiler alert: Their comments were overwhelmingly positive.)

The panel included:

  • Luc Sabbatini, CEO of PBSC, a global provider of bike-share solutions for smart cities
  • Eugène Lapierre, tournament director of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament and SVP, Quebec, Tennis Canada
  • Ralph Hosker, president of Belron Canada, an international glass repair and replacement company

At the top of the session, moderator Hugues Mousseau, vice president and partner of Montreal-based consulting firm Syrus, shared survey data of CEOs that found that 84% of respondents “couldn’t do without” business communicators. What’s more, 92% of CEOs that took the survey said their communications team was ROI-positive.

Top Communications Functions: Standing Out, Storytelling and M&A

Cutting through digital noise is a major concern for CEOs. Hosker pointed out that in the last decade, the communications landscape has undergone “a complete and utter transformation. Just for me to get your attention is much harder.”

Storytelling and authenticity were also big topics of discussion. “It’s not only the product, but how are you doing it; what are your values? There’s a new term in business, ‘narrative.’ What’s your story? This is a dramatic change,” said Hosker.

Communications around mergers and acquisitions are paramount, especially for a public company, said Sabbatini. Hosker added that in Belron’s case, communicators leaders were crucial in understanding the culture of the purchased company, addressing new employees and helping them understand what’s going on with full transparency.

Diversity and Transparency Still an Issue

But amid all of the championing of the PR function, the elephant in the room was diversity in the C-suite, as the panel consisted of three white men (four, including the moderator). “What needs to change to add women to the panel next year?” asked one attendee.

The panelists were a bit vague on that point. Hosker said his executive leadership team already consisted of three women and three men, and that it made an “absolute difference” in achieving business goals. “When we’re talking about objectives, it’s a better conversation. It’s a better parity when everyone takes part,” Lapierre added.

But outside of providing more diverse points of view, how can communicators do even more to help the C-suite?

Be as candid as possible, said Hosker. “Provide feedback honestly and clearly with what I can be doing better. Each of us is a walking communications officer, whether we know it or not, in our statements, in our body language.”

All of the panelists agreed they would be receptive to that kind of feedback, whether it came from a senior director, a new employee or even a volunteer.  “It all starts with listening to employees. They’re on the front line,” said Lapierre.

Communications Professionals Must Be Budget-Savvy Innovators

“One of the discussions I have in my company is innovation. We spend a lot of money on R&D and in communications, we should also be looking forward,” said Sabbatini. For instance, he noticed other players in his industry were using Medium as a publishing channel, and he wished his communications team had beat them to it. “It’s techie, it’s aligned with the business. Communications should be innovative and look forward to find new ways of doing things.”

But the top obstacle to giving communications a more strategic role in decision-making was an understanding of budget and business objectives, the panel agreed.

The good news: According to Sabbatini, communications professionals seem to be gaining an edge over their peers in the advertising business. “Today there’s external comms, internal comms, social media. Media has declined and advertising has declined and communications is taking over.”

And to Sabbatini, communications has always had staying power. “Communications is a long-term commitment, not a fast fix for crisis. If you cut communications, then you lose everything you’ve built.”

Follow Sophie: @SophieMaerowitz