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A Seat at the Table Needs to be Earned

By Tony Jaques
This week’s guest columnist is Tony Jaques. He is Managing Director of the Australian consultancy Issue Outcomes P/L and writes extensively on issue and crisis management and the respective roles of lawyers and communicators. His latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating legal and Communication Conflict, Rothstein, New York, 2020.
To submit a guest column, please email it to our Marketing Coordinator, Nicole Mailhoit at [email protected]

PR practitioners and corporate communicators have been arguing since Edward Bernays was in short pants about how they need a “seat at the table”.

But for just about as long they have misunderstood that this is something you earn, not something you are granted.

A recent analysis of boards and management teams of the FTSE 100 top listed companies in the UK found almost half have no Director of Communications, Director of Corporate Affairs or similar dedicated position at this senior level.

Despite growing crisis and reputational risk in the age of 24 hour news and social media, the research by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) revealed just three FTSE 100 companies having a dedicated communications director; only twenty-nine having a non-executive with clear communications experience; and just over half (52%) having a dedicated communications or corporate affairs expert in their executive leadership or management teams.

By contrast, 80 of the FTSE 100 companies have a dedicated HR figure on their executive leadership team or management committee.

As CIPR Chief Executive Alastair McCapra concluded: “In the space of an incredibly short period, a company can become front page news for the wrong reasons – a position many could find themselves in if they don’t have the right communications expertise at the very top.”

Sadly, this corporate risk is nothing new. And there is no reason to think the problem is confined to the UK. Go to the website of any big company and open the tab labelled “Our Management Team.” In line with the British survey, there is a good chance you will not find a Corporate Communications Manager among all those photographs of earnest-looking executives (even though corp comms is likely the department which oversees the website).

The corporate risk is clear – especially is a crisis. We all have our favourite examples of companies and executives under pressure saying and doing really dumb stuff which seems to demonstrate no understanding of stakeholders and no appreciation of even the most basic principles of communication.

Yet in most cases we don’t know whether good communications advice was provided and ignored, or bad advice was taken, or indeed whether management even bothered to seek communications advice.

So how has this situation come about?

The most obvious cause is top management simply lacking any adequate understanding of the potential contribution and scope of professional communications counsel.

Some years ago I interviewed the CEOs of major chemical and petro-chemical companies for research on the barriers to effective crisis preparedness. The CEO of one publicly listed company proudly described the measures they had in place, and I then asked him what role their Corporate Affairs Manager played in their crisis preparedness. He looked genuinely surprised and told me: “Oh she just does newsletters and sponsorship and stuff.”

Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is all too common. A few years later the New Jersey chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) sponsored a survey of 100 C-suite executives, asking them to prioritise their top three objectives for PR. While a seemingly impressive 85% identified “building reputation”, when it came to how this is achieved, only 25% identified “corporate social responsibility”, and a dismal 12% prioritised “crisis management”.

The lead pollster for the study, Nathan Richter, acutely summarised the problem. “Our survey shows that CEOs ‘don’t know what they don’t know.’ Good reputations don’t just appear out of thin air. A more well-defined articulation of how PR can benefit their companies is a must.”

Which neatly captures the other main reason top management so often don’t properly understand what effective communication counsel can provide. There is no qualified communicator at the top table.

In far too many companies, the head of corporate communications is a lawyer or an accountant or a commercial manager. Now, we all love and admire lawyers and accountants and assorted commercial managers, but they are not trained and qualified communicators and don’t necessarily have the requisite skills. Accordingly, they have difficulty articulating and properly advocating for communication. It’s expertise, not job title, which makes the difference. And there is no value in having a nominal communicator at the top table if they can’t lead on transparent and timely communications advice and, most critically, are not listened to. That shortcoming can be papered over for years, then bursts into costly prominence when a crisis strikes.

Closely aligned with this problem is the fundamental challenge for communicators themselves, namely their consistent inability to sell the strategic importance of what they do. They need to talk in management language, with a focus on how communication contributes to corporate objectives, protects reputation, sustains brand, reinforces the bottom line, and helps avoid disaster in the event of a crisis.

However, communicators who complain the executive suite won’t take them seriously are too often the authors of their own failure. While they persist in perceiving their contribution in tactical terms, such as media relations and how to pitch stories and how to write news releases, they will never earn – and don’t deserve – a seat at the table.

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