It’s time for corporate communications to go to the ball

David Bowen looks back on nearly three decades of online corporate communications, and asks whether the current debate about ‘purpose’ will finally lead bosses to give digital channels the attention they deserve.

I have been writing about business use of the internet since 1992. A few million words, all pretty much on the same subject. These are my last few hundred, and I’ve been asked to say not what has changed, but what hasn’t.

So I am first going to disobey my brief and say what I think really has changed. Nothing to do with the technology, it’s about people, and it’s positive. Online communications may not much be appreciated by bosses (see the rest of this column), but it is now a true profession. I think that is mainly because the sort of people who do this work are not trying to clamber towards the executive suite; they need job satisfaction, they are clever, and they want to be allowed to get on with what they are good at. Shame everyone isn’t like them.

Which comes on to the big thing that hasn’t really changed. Yet.

It is those bosses. They just don’t think corporate communications is that important, even when wrapped up in the fashion robes of the internet. They are wrong – and I very much hope this is changing.

This is of course an absurdly broad brush, and some bosses get it completely. But the depressing pattern persists. So far.

In the mid-Nineties I was the first ‘internet person’ on one of the UK’s national papers. I spent a lot of time talking to the people who were trying to get websites going in their organizations. They had an expression: ‘golf course syndrome’. The best chance of getting a website, they told me, was if their CEO was talking to another CEO on the seventh tee, and the other one said, ‘We’ve got a website, you should have one.’ When social media (or rather ‘Web 2.0’) came along a few years later, I was told by one frustrated manager that the only reason the company had a Facebook page was because the chairman’s son had told him they needed one. Then there were comms-based apps. They took off because directors were handed iPads with their board meeting notes on them. Suddenly it became terribly easy to get budget for an app.

A lesson that affected me more directly was when my previous company was slammed by a cliff edge drop in interest after the ‘dotcom bubble’ burst. Never mind that internet usage was growing steadily; in boardrooms the word ‘internet’ went from gold dust to cyanide overnight.

The support top managers give to online comms depends to an absurd degree on their personal instincts, rather than on rational business decision-making. This can of course work in its favour, at least in the short term. One of the best-resourced online teams I know has a CEO who loves tweeting; I’m sure that is no coincidence. But given that large companies are usually rather better than, say, politicians at taking a long term view, resources should surely not be dependent on personal enthusiasms.

Why is it like this?

I used to think it was because top managers did not understand technology. In my days as a journalist I met many chief executives who did not – would not – have a computer in their office (what was a secretary for?). But that isn’t true anymore. LinkedIn looked last year at the backgrounds of 12,000 CEOs from 20 countries and found that by far the most common degree for them to have was computer science.

Even people my age – early 60s – who probably never saw a computer until they were well into adulthood, have got their heads around technology to some degree.

What then is the problem?

The first and biggest is that corporate communications as a whole has always been a Cinderella function. It doesn’t obviously make money, it doesn’t obviously save money. It is a marginal department that does PR and stuff. Does it really have any point?

Second, corporate websites have never been taken very seriously. They have been serially ignored. When they first appeared, in the Nineties, they were seen as strange creatures of the IT department. Annual reports mattered; websites did not. There was another phrase – ‘web quality gap’: a spelling mistake in the annual report got you fired, a mass of gobbledygook on a website got a you a shrug. Then marketing and sales discovered e-commerce, and they were all about that. Then Web 2.0 (social media) came along, and they were plain old-fashioned. Now … well, that brings us back to the fashion thing. Websites are widely tolerated; rarely celebrated. If Web 2.0 had indeed been the magic route to exciting corporate comms, that would have been fine. But it wasn’t – and social media is now back under the stairs with Cinderella.

I come back to my ‘yet’ and ‘so far’. Is it changing?

In some places, yes. Our latest snapshot of online corporate comms – the Index of Online Excellence – shows real improvements. I think that is largely down to the growing professionalisation of the teams, but that in turn must reflect greater resources. Budgets go and up and down in the short run, but over 10 or 15 years they have grown. Ten years ago it was easy to find a giant organization with just one person running its corporate website; now it is not.

But if the best companies are doing the right thing, most are not. We have a rolling programme checking 200+ major corporations for signs of online excellence, or at least competence. Half we mark as ‘poor’. And these are the biggest companies in the world.

Will this change? It should do – but there again it should have changed already. Websites and social media have long been central to getting decent employees. The IR department realized years ago that the internet was a magic answer to its need to release sensitive information simultaneously around the world. Journalists are online all the time; occasionally they take note of what companies say. Corporate social responsibility grew up at the same time as the web, and has always been reliant on it for reporting. And then of course there are customers. 

But these have not been enough.

I hope that the current talk of ‘purpose’ will have a real effect – on corporate comms as a whole, not just online. I don’t know if it will – it may turn out to be another fashion – but I believe strongly that it should. Companies are part of society, and a short-term concentration on shareholders’ interests risks ignoring that. A long-term concentration is fine, because there is no contradiction. Read the near-poetic Credo written in 1943 by Robert Wood Johnson for his family company, Johnson & Johnson: that explains the logic better than I can.

If corporates do decide they have a broader purpose, that will be marvellous. But they will need to explain that purpose, or much of its power will evaporate. They will not attract idealistic youngsters to work for them, they will fail to impress investors looking for ethical behaviour, they will deter customers who do not want to buy from ‘bad’ companies (it is ironic that J&J now has some of the worst reputational issues of any corporate, but that does not dim the clarity of its Credo).

That will (should) be the job of a newly invigorated corporate comms function, and its prime tool – this being the 21st century – will be the internet.

Cinderella can and must come out from under the stairs. She will be clutching her laptop.

David Bowen is semi-retiring at the end of this year.

Although David is semi-retiring, you will still see him at next year’s Bowen Craggs Conference in June 2020 in Brussels. The theme of the conference is ‘Explaining your purpose: The role of companies in society is being questioned and redefined. How should digital communicators respond?’

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First published 15 December, 2019
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