Darling, they are just not that into you: lessons from running the reputation of a major multinational corporation

5 years, 4 months ago


Too many communications departments pump out corporate messages that respond to an internal requirement while ignoring what stakeholders want and need. By John McLaren.

After 14 years in the chemicals industry, the last 11 as Head of Communications at AkzoNobel – a $20 billion leader in paint and performance coatings – one might well imagine that I have a large mahogany box in my office, full-to-the brim with all the things I have learnt about running the reputation of a massive multi-national. Well, yes. Sort of. 
Chemicals are not like Apple or Nike or Katy Perry. There is not a large constituency of natural believers (or Beliebers....), who just love everything we do. 
The chemical industry used to be up there with estate agents, bankers and arms traders in the list of people who Do Bad Stuff. I am glad to say that, according to most of the reputable indexes who measure these things, the Chemicals industry is well out of its bad neighborhood.  We are not quite garden centers and Montessori schools, but we are in a neat and respectable place. 
So, yes, it’s been quite a journey but my learnings are not to be weighed (or put in that big box). They are more like those old fashioned par avion letters: thin, elegant, light and often to be treasured (letters from home – sometimes containing a cheque). Let me explain.
I give a lot of speeches and presentations and, lucky me, they have been all around the world. The Heinz 57 Varieties of the cultures and audiences differ but they have had a strange commonality in their reactions to my performance (I nearly wrote ´shtick´). Because I take a ‘Be Human for Heaven’s Sake’ approach to communications, and avoid the modish jargon-filled rubbish based on yet another on-line peer-group study managed by a pumped-up membership organization that dreams of being McKinsey (phew! Glad I got THAT off my chest), folk respond in a human and non faux-academic way. 
That is to say, if I propose the thought that most communications departments just pump corporate messages that respond to an internal need and requirement and ignore both what the stakeholders want and need (and, incidentally, machine-gun any stray passers-by with the messaging glue gun), the audience pumps the air (sort of), and responds with their own examples of a press release trumpeting the appointment of a new Supply Chain Director. 
Who cares?
This, they say, is only really interesting to Supply Chain Director Magazine and all the little supply chain director’s kids. Nobody else cares. Yet, pump, pump, pump goes the corporate communications machine. 
Internal politics is satisfied (the CEO appoints somebody marvelous so he must be marvelous), HR is delighted because they are recruiting cool people, Supply Chain are delighted because they get a top new boss. But for the rest of the world this is pure corporate wall paper and matters not one jot. 
It has also taken 15 drafts, hundreds of e-mails and a hell of a lot of hours in a department that is probably small and under huge budget constraints. This is NOT good communications and most of the professionals know this. But it is part of our internal License to Operate and we just buckle-down and get on.
Real and honest
Starting the ‘Real & Honest’ journey in communications is always a cathartic and fun enterprise. The energy audiences give back to me is often the fuel I need to navigate the off-road driving that is the common experience of the modern Corp Comms Director. And the audience reaction both confirms and affirms that, outside the corporate bubble, most professionals recognize that the way to communicate in the 21st Century is to Do As the Romans Do,  i.e. live in the real world and try, try, try to reflect and echo the way folk want to be talked to. 
To go back to my par avion metaphor, here’s the small list of key things I have learnt (with the caveat that there are plenty of things I still have to learn):
1. Truly understand your Stakeholders. There is a great deal of ‘white noise’ around stakeholders. Be utterly rigorous in defining who exactly they are and then what they want from you and what you want from them. Traditionally a company might say: "Brazilian students". I say: which students? Where? What are they studying? Why do we want them? How many? What are they looking for from us? What are the social tools they use? How are they usually influenced (Music? Politics? Rock music? Probably all of the above). Only then should you start crafting a program and plan.
2. Measure for Measure. I may be becoming a measuring obsessive but I am utterly convinced that without hard matrix and data it is almost impossible not to waste money and resources. If your country folk are managing the in-country stakeholder assessment and program follow-up, then they are not, usually, going to have a great deal of money. Secondly, they are the arm of corporate with a Plan based on corporate country needs (the businesses are busy making and selling product and ably assisted by the vast budgets of the Marketing Comms people). They really have to get ‘Bang for their Buck’ and measurement is the only way that resources and effort can be properly targeted. They are being managed from the centre but, usually with a ‘light touch’ (necessitated, again, by limited central resources – normally one corporate FTE might be managing five countries PLUS their other responsibilities). Measurement really matters.
3. Leave the Businesses Alone. In any complex structure, especially multi-national ones, there is always a feeling of Company Fish Stew going on (everything from everyone is in the pot – and everyone thinks their bit is the most important). How do the country corporate teams interface with the businesses in that country? Not so simple when there might be two or three businesses, all separately managed from different HQ´s, and run on a regional but not country basis. Communications is virtually always a country-focused business. For example, in the media there is virtually no such thing as a European vehicle (maybe the FT and Economist). One has to act local and think local. Furthermore, a Business is focused on sales and the bottom line. I strenuously and emphatically believe that corporate communication is NOT nor should it ever be about sales. We are not salespeople and most of our stakeholders would run a mile if they thought we were. We are humans and, on the whole, we tell the truth (do you lie to your friends and family? Of course not. If you did, well, Christmas would be a bit quiet wouldn´t it?!). No, we are reputation builders and enhancers. We explain and we are in it for the longest-term. If you can forgive the analogy, we want relationships and not quick.... Mmmm...well, you get the picture. Businesses know what they are doing, so get out of the way and let them do it. Co-ordination, consultation and sharing of plans are all good and necessary BUT we do different things (and a great company reputation enhances a great product brand). This really is a win-win.
4. Consigliere and not Courtier. I like to think that the Communications department and director are the link and interface between humanity and Planet Corporate. Others have investigated and proven the link between corporate personality behaviors and socio/psychopathy. Who am I to challenge the work of Harvard etc.? What I am happy to say is that, quite often, those who have survived and thrived in the ‘Snakes & Ladders’ world of corporate life and reached the very top are.....how shall we say?......not always best equipped to deploy the required levels of empathy and trust that makes for optimum decision making. Or, to put it more bluntly, power really does corrupt relationships and senior folk tend to be isolated and ultimately gravitate towards the more fawning and facilitating types. This we should never be! The moment we stop being honoured ambassadors and visitors whose wisdom, fairness and instincts help preserve and grow the company reputation, then we are lost. How many times have I seen a perfectly good and creative Internal Communications machine turned into an ‘HR Send Operation’. Quantity doesn’t equal quality and a failure to respect what employees need rather than what a company wants to send results in message spaghetti and ultimate dislocation. Communications talks sense to power. If you are part of power then you cannot advise.
I rather fear my pale blue elegant letter might turn into a thesis, so this is where I will stop. What I would like to re-affirm (and the above is in no particular order) is that modern communications is about humans, for humans, by humans. 
Techniques and channels now change endlessly and will do so with increasing speed. With the constant pressure and speed of that change, eternal verities and basic truths are ever more essential for the crazy journey we are all on. 
My take on the essentials? Be honest. Be good. Do no harm. And if you do, apologize quickly, loudly and constantly. 
Lawyers manage risk and liability costs. Communications professionals manage reputation. And that, I assure you, is beyond price.
Author’s Details
John McLaren is Corporate Director of Communications at AkzoNobel, the world’s largest coatings company and a leader in specialty chemicals. He has been responsible for successfully communicating the massive transformation at AkzoNobel, this included €27 billion worth of divestments and acquisitions (notably the purchase of ICI), as well as the complete rebranding of the company and the introduction of a new global identity. 
Before joining AkzoNobel, John was Vice-President of Corporate Communications at Royal DSM, where he oversaw the communications around the purchase of Roche Vitamins and a global positioning campaign. Prior to that he has been:  Director of Corporate Communications for News Network, the digital arm of News International, Vice President of World Space Satellite Radio in Washington D.C. (Sirius Radio) and in Public Affairs at IDV (now Diageo).
Widely recognized as an authority in promoting international brand image (having worked in London, Brussels, Washington D.C. and Amsterdam), John is renowned in particular for developing effective global communications strategies. 

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John McLaren

John McLaren is Corporate Director of Communications at AkzoNobel, the world’s largest coatings company and a leader in specialty chemicals

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