Danny Rogers on PR: The still small voice of the comms expert

 

A majority of FTSE 100 firms still do not have a communications expert on their executive board.

Research from headhunters Watson Helsby shows only 46 per cent of Britain's biggest companies give a seat at executive level to a communications or corporate affairs director.

I find this shocking when it has become clear that reputational errors regularly wipe millions of pounds off the value of FTSE firms. From BP's handling of the Gulf of Mexico crisis to the fall from grace of Bob Diamond at Barclays, we have seen how companies that fail to engage sufficiently with their stakeholders can take years to recover.

The advantage of having a comms expert at the top table is not only that they can help communicate the good things that a firm is doing – what we would understand as classic public relations – but that they can remind the board about the potential ramifications of certain business decisions.

Business leaders should now work on the basis that any big decision they take will eventually become public knowledge, thanks to the inherent transparency and traceability of digital communication.

Hence any decision should also be seen in the light of how it will ultimately play out in the eyes of the media, shareholders, customers and employees. In this sense, the senior comms adviser becomes the very useful "conscience" of the firm.

A number of well-known FTSE firms do employ comms directors on their executive board: Ian Wright at Diageo, Dominic Fry at Marks & Spencer, Charlotte Lambkin at BAE Systems and Sir John Grant at British Gas.

But even then it can be a lonely role. One director of comms confides: "Sometimes you simply have to tell the other leaders: 'Ethically, we cannot do this'. But you may be seen as standing in the way of revenue-driving decisions and take a lot of flak."

The best comms directors soon win the confidence of a smart chief executive, who recognises the value of a transparent culture and avoiding reputational errors. But those business leaders who do not give sufficient seniority to experienced and capable communicators will learn this lesson the hard way.

Danny Rogers is editor of PR Week

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