Would you fly blind? Business / Crisis communication / Crisis Management / Leadership communications

Sally Bruce, Former CEO AMP Bank

So, would you fly blind?  Obviously not, but it feels to me a fitting parallel to being a senior executive without a good communication team. 

From my experience the comms team do more than add an increment to performance.  They are skilled counsel in both business as usual and crisis times.  They find the right voice for the situation, make performance visible to the right audiences and are clear heads on what’s on point at all the critical junctions.

Good leaders are intuitive around communication strategies for their people but this often finds its limits when the leader themself is under pressure.  And, if we think about external audiences and stakeholders, it gets tricky quickly to get the message right. 

Unsurprisingly this is an art.  This is why we have professional communicators who have dedicated themselves to understanding audiences, what needs to be said when, how messages land and how to show up when things are difficult. It is not realistic to expect a busy executive team to be able to do this.  Arguably, it is dangerous to do so and we have all seen the many case studies of a situation not well managed. Internally, this shows up as cultural erosion and inability to retain talent.  Externally, in damaging commentary and loss of shareholder confidence.  Both of these are direct drivers of financial performance and company valuations.

So what is important to me in a good comms team?  The critical elements for success are:

  • Empowerment
  • Opinionated 
  • Objectivity
  • Creativity
  • Push & pull
  • Intimacy, and
  • Connected.

Empowerment is critical.  To excel at their craft these guys need access.  All forums open to them to be in attendance when required.  They need to be in the essence of what is going on and need to be able to open the door to any discussion if the situation requires it.  This can require air cover at times.  It also comes most naturally when the team is highly regarded and positioned as a valuable resource to aid business success.

You also don’t want a passive team or comms person.  You need them to be opinionated and, coupled with empowerment, able to challenge and inform the views of everyone from the Chairman down.  Often having a central comms team with a business partnership model is helpful to this.  A comms team sitting within business lines can lose sight of its role to challenge or be disempowered by their reporting line.

Where the team reports can also impact the teams objectivity and, arguably, this is one of the most valuable things they bring.  Comms teams are skilled at working in a crisis, this is a large part of their craft.  This therefore becomes an enormous asset when times are tough.  They bring a trained objectivity at the time many under pressure executives have lost theirs. 

A creative team is also an enormous asset to a busy executive.  I will share an example to demonstrate how a great comms team can drive value.

In one of my roles, I had a retail portfolio which was the largest part of the balance sheet.  This made for an interesting stakeholder mix – everyday Aussies and the investor community.  Often decisions made were perceived to favour one to the disadvantage of the other.  Clearly it was part of the management task to ensure we were getting the balance of these stakeholder interests right.  Sharing this problem with the comms team was my stroke of genius.  All credit beyond this goes to them.  The team developed two comms strategies for my business – one via the Australian Financial Review for the investor community and the second, the Herald Sun, to speak to our customer base.  They also artfully always ensured they were aligned but in the right voice for the audiences.  I credit a period of extraordinary business growth (in fact reversing negative growth) in large part to this strategy which saw brand recognition and consideration in the consumer space skyrocket, while also positioning with shareholders and investors how the growth was value accretive.   

Given we were coming off a period of negative business growth, it won’t surprise you we had limited means in terms of a marketing budget.  This team also filled this void.  Developing cost neutral strategies such as letters to the front line which invariably would end up in the public domain as well door stop interviews with our CEO with well-crafted messages that would create positive unpaid media.

These opportunities were also born out of the push and pull I have identified.  Push and pull needs to be a hallmark of the relationship you have with this team to get the most powerful outcomes.  This is a type of creative tension where each side of the equation needs to be able to challenge to push beyond comfort zones.   Sometimes this is the executive pushing to get the team to work harder on managing the risks to match the vision for what they want to communicate.  Equally, it can be the comms team pushing the executive to be bolder.  Obviously this is only a healthy dynamic if the reverse, the pull, can be used to the same effect.

Intimacy may feel like an odd thing to mention, but the best comms professionals I have worked with have been able to read me and create my voice.  When I have this I can pick up a speech, a press release or team communication and there is little work to be done.  It sounds like me, it aligns to my values and priorities.  This kind of symmetry is incredibly valuable to a busy executive.

Finally, a connected comms team is paramount.  Beyond crafting messages this talks to an ABC of the comms craft.   These guys need to know the market, the players, the processes of how messages come to life, who to place a message with, how to play the long game with the stakeholders and therefore when to step forward and back and with whom.  This knowledge, built in careers over years and across workplaces, is something an executive can never expect to master.

So I say, don’t find yourself flying blind. Don’t under value your comms team, empowered they will amplify your strategy and your successes as well as provide cover when the challenges inevitably come.

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