Catch up with Jon Church...

I recently spoke to Jon Church, who is a senior Communications Leader. Jon has developed and delivered strategies for businesses such as Tesco, Co-op and Central Government. He has also worked overseas on the turnaround of the Coles retail group in Australia. His extensive background has enabled him to offer strategic advice to improve reputation, align communications and enhance overall business culture.

He shared with me his thoughts on the last 18 months, the essential foundations to a successful comms division and what it really means to protect your reputation.

How would you summarise the last 18 months from a Communications perspective?

Communications Leaders set the agenda. The last 18 months has put business under the spotlight like never before. Whether it’s what to do with COVID money received from government while making record profits and paying executive bonuses or how to protect employees and customers on the frontline while managing spiralling costs, there were some very big and very public decisions to make. And getting it right would have a huge and long-lasting impact on the performance and reputation of the business and those responsible for leading it.

Corporate Affairs and Communications leaders were (or certainly should have been!) at the centre of the decision making, leading daily crisis calls and co-ordinating getting the right message out to colleagues, the media, government and investors and spotting opportunities to position their business and their bosses as doing the right thing.

Listening in on daily No. 10 press conferences, attending government roundtables, interpreting official guidance, advising leaders on how it will impact the business and getting clear comms out to colleagues all within a few hours. I honestly can’t think of a time when the comms team set the organisational agenda for such a sustained period of time. And now, having proved ourselves (if we needed to!), communicators can’t allow things to go back to how they were in many businesses.

What can Communications leaders do to be heard and make real impact?

I’m often surprised talking to senior peers at how many of them don’t have a seat at the top table and lack the skills, experience or connections to properly advise and challenge. I’m not talking about reporting lines (although they can help), but about access to decision makers and the ability to influence them, making sure they understand what world-class communications really looks like and what value it adds to a business.

I’ve always thought of my, and my team’s, role as a mix of creative storytelling and bringing the outside world into the business, helping colleagues understand what opinion formers think of us, what issues are bubbling away under the surface and where we might be able to highlight our difference to gain commercial advantage or to support wider work on the social or environmental change agenda.

I think there are 3 core skills that help communicators do this successfully:

Sound Judgment – To some extent this comes with experience, but every successful communicator I know instinctively knows a good story and can spot potential trouble in time to steer their organisation away from it.

Storytelling – You have to know what makes people tick to be able to tell a story that’s relevant to them. So this isn’t just about being able to write, but about understanding your audience and then flexing your message and channel accordingly. You also need to use insight and data effectively to add credibility to what you’re saying. All of this applies whether you’re talking to the media, investors, politicians, NGOs or colleagues.

Networking – Arguably the most important of the 3 because without effective internal and external networks, nobody is listening to you and you’ll miss things that need your input. Networking is often ignored as a skill and most of us are guilty of not creating enough time to do it properly. I’ve worked for CEO’s who rebel against spending time on the road meeting colleagues, briefing journalists or speaking at industry events. I get it’s hard and it takes time and effort, but I’d say it’s been the single most important thing I’ve invested in during my career and it’s the first thing I look to review and build when I join a new team. COVID has made it more challenging, but the best of us have simply looked for different and creative ways to stay in touch. During good times and bad, a comprehensive, well maintained stakeholder contact plan always pays dividends.

Sound Judgment was crucial when Jon worked on the Northern Ireland peace talks. Pictured here with the late Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, talking to media outside 10 Downing Street.

How crucial is business reputation and how does a good communications strategy feedback to this?

COVID was challenging for most organisations but those who have always invested in doing the right thing for stakeholders felt the benefits more than those who haven’t.

Too many organisations only pay attention to their reputation when something has gone wrong and frankly by then it’s often too late. Reputation is a living thing, it needs to be fed, loved and looked after. And don’t assume that strong sales, busy shops or positive customer reviews means you’re ok.

I won’t name names but think about all those transactional relationships with businesses you have where you like what they provide but you don’t necessarily like who they are or what they stand for. Some might not think that matters, if people are buying from you and those sales are profitable, who cares if they like you? That’s a dangerous and short-sighted view.

A good reputation opens up new opportunities to grow, to win new customers, attract the best talent and to venture into new markets. But you have to put the leg work in, understand the stakeholder landscape, really demonstrate through actions not just words that you’re listening. Develop meaningful partnerships that help you get where you want to be more quickly and with greater credibility.

It’s important for Communications leaders to understand this, not least because it’s your door that usually gets the knock when the CEO doesn’t like reading what people really think about them or the organisation they lead.

So, you need to be plugged into the long-term strategy of the organisation and be actively scanning the political, economic, social and environmental horizons for issues and opportunities - constantly thinking about the things that will enhance reputation and how you’ll manage the challenges that inevitably crop up and can hurt you. This is where those strong networks I talked about earlier really come into play.

It takes years, decades even, to earn a good reputation but when something goes wrong you can lose it in minutes if you don’t have enough credit in the bank of public opinion.

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