By: Dave Samson and Jim O’Leary   

Coronavirus has jolted institutions, corporations and organizations into a new reality.  Business assumptions have been turned upside down, ways of working radically altered or ended, and relationships have taken on new dimensions. Tens of millions are now working, learning and shopping from home to a degree never imagined.  

As a result, many have been forced to rapidly ascend the digital learning curve. McKinsey recently stated that the world has leapfrogged ahead in digital adoption by five to ten years in just the past three months. Looking ahead, the adoption of digital tools, technology and data will continue at a rapid clip far beyond our current health crisis–and our profession must keep pace. Unfortunately, many corporate communications teams are still playing catch up. Here’s why. 

Our profession grew out of a time when newspapers were read in every household, when education took place in physical classrooms, when town hall meetings were characterized by people jammed into folding chairs. Today, many departments still operate in this analog world–and few have fully evolved to the digital world, much less prepared for the world of artificial intelligence and machine learning that we have entered. 

Digital engagement has become the predominant way in which people interact and consume information. It is time to reinvent and modernize the corporate communications function by heeding the advice of those leaders in our profession, and the Page Society, who have advocated for the need to hasten our adoption of CommTech.   

It boils down to this:  For most corporate communicators, the world has already shifted to one in which our greatest challenges and opportunities await us online–the space where our key stakeholders are increasingly working, learning, discussing and forming opinions. But many in our profession lack the digital fluency and data analytics capabilities to fully embrace and drive this necessary transformation.    

So, what is the path forward? Here are some important steps that world class communications teams are taking to modernize their organizations.   

World class teams are evolving from a proactive to a predictive function.  Over the years, many organizations have evolved from being corporate reporting functions to being proactive, stakeholder-focused teams. But it should not end there. With the advent of CommTech, the aim should be to accelerate the next step-change – moving from a proactive communications function to a predictive one. A predictive communications team uses data and advanced analytics to improve decision-making and apply real-time, actionable intelligence to better target and engage their key stakeholders. A predictive team can foreshadow stakeholder behaviors, business risks and new opportunities. With this evolution, communicators move from driving stakeholder advocacy to provoking actions that enable tangible business outcomes – improved sales, higher stock valuations, better business partnerships. Predictive teams are data- and results-driven, elevating the ROI of the function to the business. They prove themselves as indispensable business partners, progressing from cost centers to value centers.  

World class teams are transforming how they understand and engage stakeholders. Today’s world is made up of generations who have much different worldviews, changing expectations of the role of brands and companies, and different habits for how they interact and consume information than those who grew up in an analog world largely designed  to cater to the preferences of the baby boom generation. Leading communications teams are using CommTech to know more about the people who matter most, target them with the content they care most about, and do so down to the individual level to measurably influence business outcomes. Some global communications teams have been able to use CommTech to generate leads for products ranging from regional aircraft to wind turbines, making a material revenue generating impact. Other companies use CommTech to continuously listen to stakeholders, driving advocacy at scale and motivating people to take measurable actions favorable to their business.  

World class teams are rapidly acquiring new skills and advancing their collective digital capabilities. They are deliberately gaining greater fluency in CommTech and their ability to deploy it. Just as good writing and media relations skills once defined our profession, new capabilities in advanced analytics, agile content creation, micro-targeted distribution and revenue attribution modeling are redefining every aspect of what we do. Today, too few companies have data scientists, content marketing strategists, behavioral scientists and/or stakeholder intelligence advisors on their teams. These are some of the new essential roles of a modern communications function.  

World class teams are becoming more agile and optimizing talent by adopting a digital “trading floor” model. Hierarchical models sub-optimize talent, hold back people development and diminish the collective contributions teams can make. Modern communications teams are using CommTech and evolving their organizational design to a trading-floor model, deploying people based on skill, interest and initiative as opposed to tenure or where one falls on an organization chart. This approach is reducing cycle time, allowing real-time response and creating a follow-the-sun model of engagement. These new ways of working are also fostering reverse mentoring, faster talent development and the ability to take advantage of everyone’s full capabilities.   

These are some of the deliberate approaches that modern communications teams are taking to advance their digital and data literacy, improve their effectiveness and stay at the forefront of our profession in a world defined by constant change and disruption.   

With the accelerated adoption of digital tools, technology and data, it’s only a matter of time before a dramatic divide widens between traditional practitioners and those who are using CommTech to predict employee and activist behavior, reduce business risk, generate leads and drive stakeholders to action. Which side of the chasm do you plan to be on?  

Jim O’Leary is Edelman’s Global Corporate Practice Chair. Dave Samson is Vice Chairman of Corporate Affairs at Edelman and formerly General Manager of Public Affairs at Chevron.