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Put this skill set on the spec sheet: how communication professionals can help corporate boards--as a peer board member.

Few communication professionals have ever earned a seat inside the boardroom--as a full-fledged director. I believe this could be the next milestone for communication professionals. It's time for the best in our profession to move to this new table.

I have worked in communication for well over two decades. I've worked in several Fortune 500 companies in countries around the world and in many industries. I've worked on both the corporate and agency side and in my own consultancy. Throughout my career, I've watched boards wrestle with difficult issues. I've seen how a little foresight--specifically acquired through a communication lens--could have avoided big problems and generated better outcomes. A top-notch communication professional, serving as a director, can bring real value to a corporate board,

I am not suggesting that boards are not doing a good job or that every communicator deserves to become a director. But I do see an opportunity for the best in our profession to add value at the board level.

Defining a 21st century communicator

So, which communication professionals would add the most value as a board member? Senior professionals who have the following four key attributes--qualities that make them "21st century communicators":

1. We are business leaders first. We have expertise in a specific discipline, just as a CFO, chief human resource officer, or chief marketing officer is a business leader first, who also has expertise in a specific area. As I look at my peers, I see that the way senior communica-tion professionals have been successful has been by being strong business people first, developing business acumen and then layering the communication discipline onto that as a leadership competency. When I look at leaders in business, I see that, at the very top levels, expertise in their specific area is a given. What distinguishes the best from the rest is communication. Communication is a hard skill and a leadership competency.

2. We are holistic thinkers. In fact, we might have the most inclusive viewpoint of any corporate officer. Most of the other officers in a company focus on a single stakeholder group. Someone with a financial background might focus on investors. HR will focus on employees. Marketing focuses on customers.

What's unique about a senior communication executive is that no single stakeholder is elevated over the others. We look at the environment, and we look at stakeholders, holistically. We think about the company's relationships with all of those stakeholders. We anticipate how our actions would affect those relationships and the company's reputation.

3. We emphasize business results over tactics. Tactics will always be part of our job, but if we are known only for our tactics, we are stuck at the end of the process--stuck at execution--instead of being part of the process at the very beginning when strategy is formulated. Execution is important. Thomas Edison once said, "Vision without execution is hallucination." But the 21st century communicator makes a real contribution by being involved in every stage: vision, strategy, and execution.

4. We shape how our companies behave. Finally, 21st century communicators don't just help companies communicate; we shape how they act. We influence their culture and behavior. We affect how employees talk with each other and how transparent we are, and we have a hand in shaping ethics and corporate culture.

Now that I've defined the type of communication professionals who should serve on boards, let me make the case for why they should be there.

The 'reputation stumble'

Boards are in the public spotlight to a greater extent than ever before, and we can help them navigate this new, high-stakes landscape. Today, board decisions are under increased focus and scrutiny from shareowners, stakeholders, NGOs, labor unions, activist groups, and the media. For example, board decisions around issues like compensation are capturing more public interest and media coverage than they did decades ago. Government rules about boards continue to evolve, reshaping the power relationship between shareowners and directors as they push toward greater transparency and a larger voice for shareowners.

A final factor that's putting boards in the spotlight is the speed at which a company's reputation can be damaged. Companies have always worked to protect their brands and reputations, but the increasing speed of communication has raised the stakes. Today, thanks to social media, citizen journalists, and an endless 24-7 news cycle, there is more information available about what a company is doing, and that information moves faster than ever before. In this environment, a small gaffe can quickly spread around the world. We've all seen examples of how a poorly handled crisis can instantly hurt a company's reputation and depress its share price--think Toyota, BP, and HP.

It's not just high-profile disasters that hurt a company's reputation. It turns out that companies' good reputations are not as stable as we'd hope. Each year, the PR firm Weber Shandwick reviews Fortunes list of the "World's Most Admired Companies" to see how many companies lose their position as the most admired company in their industry. It's something they call the "reputation stumble rate." In April 2011, Weber Shandwick found that 43% of companies lost their No. 1 standing from the year before. According to Weber Shandwick's Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, the result "highlights just how difficult a good name is to keep."

So, if boards are increasingly in the spotlight and their decisions are impacting corporate reputation, how can a communication professional add value?

'Headlights' and 'floodlights'

In this new environment, I see three specific areas where we can bring real value:

1. Provide "headlights" and "floodlights" to anticipate stakeholder reactions and unintended consequences. First, we can help boards anticipate public reactions to their decisions--giving them headlights that help them see further into the future and floodlights that illuminate the concerns of a broader group of stakeholders. We can alert boards to unintended consequences that might otherwise be overlooked. It's a skill that we've developed helping our organizations manage difficult issues that involve multiple stakeholders. We can look across all of the stakeholders and ensure the board is not missing any blind spots.

When boards make decisions, they do so through certain lenses like legal and regulatory requirements or ROI. I don't think that a "communication lens" is standard today, but it needs to be if companies are going to be successful as the pace of change continues to accelerate. Providing headlights and floodlights that help board members see more than a few steps ahead is the first area where we can add value to board deliberations.

2. Help oversee management. The board's job is to represent shareowners and to oversee management. Today, communication is a key part of what management does. We can bring insights and perspective to help boards evaluate the communication piece of management's work. We would know what questions to ask to ensure that not only is the policy right but that it is being communicated effectively. In this way, communication planning could get stronger review from the board.

Boards already have experts to help them understand special areas like auditing, risk management, and HR. Having expertise in communication would be valuable as well to the board's oversight function. Let me be clear: We would not run a company's communications. That's management's job. But we would support robust oversight by tapping our expertise to ask the right questions and raise the right concerns.

3. Provide expertise in a crisis. Because we are "business leaders first" we can add to the board's deliberations in a crisis.

But because we also have communication expertise layered onto that, we can bring another lens to address a crisis. When a company faces a critical issue like an accident at a plant or a product recall, the board relies on management's views and plans. Sometimes, companies bring in an external public relations or specialized communication firm to help. If the board included a professional communicator, the board would be better equipped to evaluate choices and make decisions under tight deadlines and public pressure.

We can make boards stronger

I'm not saying that boards are making bad decisions today--although one could argue that some clearly are--or that they need us to come to their rescue. Directors are smart, experienced leaders. Their work is important, and it is increasingly focused on the topics and skills that are our stock-in-trade.

But for some reason, as boards look for help on reputation and risk, they are not adding communication professionals to the board skill set. When Spencer Stuart asked 92 companies in the S&P 500 what expertise they're looking for in new directors, guess what they found? Communication was not even on the list. Instead, the survey found: "Nearly half of respondents say they are looking for directors with financial and industry expertise, while 37% want international experience. Also in demand are candidates with regulatory/government, risk, technology, and marketing expertise."

As business people, communication professionals can contribute to the strategy, the decision making, and the discourse. We can help boards anticipate the reactions to their decisions. We can ask the right questions based on our experience addressing the needs and demands of multiple stakeholders. We can also help boards better oversee management's work in all areas and especially in communications, and we can provide wise counsel in the face of a crisis.

But my research has reinforced that many in business still do not recognize the full value that we bring to our companies. There was once a time when communication professionals were not even in the room. We earned our seat in the executive suite by professionalizing our skills, elevating our contributions, and helping others understand our value. It's going to take that same approach to move the chair we have earned in the C-suite into the boardroom. We've got work to do to get to that day when even the most cynical, most number-loving, bottom-line board member (and nominating committee chair) will respect and value our contribution and seek it out.

As I look to the future, I see that our skills are more needed than ever, our expertise is more relevant than ever, and that we can make boards stronger. This should be a golden era of opportunity in governance for our profession.

A communicator who has a seat at the table

By Brian Tierney

Strong and dynamic corporate boards often strive to have a mix of directors to oversee key functions such as audit, finance, legal, and executive compensation committees. But one area still open on many boards is an effective communications director. Filling this role is a great opportunity for many chief executives and their companies.

Despite the known public relations nightmares in business, it seems only forward-thinking companies have communications experts on their boards. Because they know they need someone with ability to foresee potential issues before they become actual issues. Someone to know the ripple effect that each decision will bring. Someone to navigate the landmines and take the tired "hindsight is 20/20" excuse out of a boardroom.

Every board would be much better served if they had a director who could articulate a clear, compelling and proper corporate message both internally and externally. To help set the company's culture and how employees interact with clients and the media. To anticipate how corporate decisions will affect shareholders, employees and the public.


But alas, our seat at the table is usually only filled when the panic button is about to be or has been pressed. Then it becomes a mad scramble to bring in an outside expert to help with a mess. Wouldn't a board be better served using an experienced board member who the chief executive knows and trusts? Someone with the ability, respect, and business savvy to speak directly to the CEO and act as a trusted adviser?

This is especially true in the wake of the financial collapse, which has caused customers, shareholders and regulators to take a dim view of corporate America. It has even prompted many executives to think twice about joining a corporate board. Because when problems occur, board directors may be held responsible. Indeed, recent surveys have found that reputational risk has overtaken regulatory compliance risk as the primary concern of many directors.

Such reputational risk can arise in many forms given the increase in technology and globalization of many major firms. There can be product risk, outsourcing risk, risk due to fraud, privacy and data security breaches, and countless other forms of exposure for companies. When trouble hits, many chief executives and boards are ill-equipped to deal with the fallout. Chief executives and directors often get conflicting messages from attorneys and investor relations executives who view issues from a specific lens. That's where a broader view from a trusted communications expert in the boardroom can play a crucial role.

The bottom line is a strong communication executive with experience, leadership and sophistication will bring value to any board. Getting more companies to realize this, outside of a crisis? Now, that'll take some effective communications.

Brian Tierney is a board member of publicly traded Nutrisystem Inc. and Republic First Bancorp Inc., as well as a number of private companies and nonprofit organizations. He is CEO of Brian Communications (, a public relations consultancy. He has spent an entrepreneurial career in the communications industry forming his first PR firm in 1984.

Brian Tierney: Recent surveys have found that reputational risk has overtaken regulatory compliance risk as the primary concern of many directors.

RELATED ARTICLE: A 'net addition' is what we're talking about

As I've shared this idea of communication professionals serving in greater numbers as corporate directors, experts in business and corporate governance have raised a few objections.

Some questioned whether I was trying to change the role of the board. I am not The board should not be involved in the day-to-day operations of a company's communications. I don't think a board member should devise a company's communications strategy. Communication--like other management functions--should continue to be run from the C-suite and not the boardroom. But the board does need to exercise adequate oversight of management's strategies, planning, and progress. Having someone on the board with first-rate business acumen and special expertise in communication can help ensure that the right discussions are taking place and the right questions are being asked. To me, that is the essence of oversight

I'm also not advocating for the communication person within a company to serve on the board of that same company.

Further, I am not asking that a business leader on a board be replaced with a PR expert. Instead, I'm asking that when boards recruit new directors they should pick a first-rate business leader who also has expertise in communication. That way it's a net addition for the board in terms of perspective, not a loss of traditional business acumen.

Others I've talked with have pointed out that not every function can be represented on a board. That's true. But when boards need special expertise, they seek it out in new directors. After the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, boards looked for audit committee financial experts. We've seen it in other areas of expertise as well. HR executives are also being sought after for positions on corporate boards.

I agree that a board cannot be comprised of every specific expertise or discipline, but if you look at what has changed in the corporate environment over the past 10 years, reputation and risk management are now top-tier issues for companies and, therefore, communication should be one of the "in demand" areas represented on boards. --Shelley Bird

RELATED ARTICLE: CCOs and 'unpredictable forces'

Excerpted from 'The Chief Communications Officer: Guiding Your Business in a Chaotic World" a white paper issued by Russell Reynolds Associates. For a copy visit the firms website at

The reality is that companies now have many more issues and messages to communicate. If it were only about products or services, that would be easy. Today, organizations often are judged on the sustain-ability of their products and supply chains, their investment and vendor policies, the role their products play in the health and well-being of their users, their promotion of gender and racial equality, and their philanthropic commitments. Gone are the days when you could just put a product in the marketplace and go home for the night.

If executed the right way, these issues present a valuable opportunity to connect with stakeholders in a meaningful and positive social dialogue. But this is critical; These issues also require strategic management and a coherent message that builds the brand. Left uncontrolled, these varying messages can overwhelm an organization and undermine the integrity of the brand and its overarching value in the minds of consumers.

Also, technological and entrepreneurial innovation is creating an ever-changing menu of new communication channels. Facebook and Twitter are the most obvious ways the latest technologies have transformed corporate communications, but let's not forget that until 2007, most people didn't even know what a tweet was. It should go without saying that communication and media channels will continue to evolve and decentralize. The old, privileged sources of information, whether traditional media outlets or corporate marketing departments, are becoming only single nodes in a vast communication network connecting producers, consumers and intermediaries.

With these dynamic and often unpredictable forces at work, it should be no surprise that businesses are actively seeking out or cultivating Chief Communications Officers who can both synthesize and leverage these changes. Enterprises that do not respond and capitalize on these dramatic changes are squandering a potential competitive advantage and are exposing themselves to significant business risk.

Shelley Bird is executive vice president public affairs, of Cardinal Health Inc. She is a member of the company's 10-person executive committee and chair of the Cardinal Health Foundation board of trustees. Prior to joining Cardinal Health she was chief communications officer at NCR Corp. She spent a decade working in Asia, holding a number of senior positions with public relations firm Hill and Knowlton in Hong Kong and later as deputy general manager for its Singapore office. She is the immediate past chair of the International Association of Business Communicators.


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Author:Bird, Shelley
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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