Serving Coke to Dr Frankenstein

11 years, 6 months ago

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If you had the power to create the ideal in-house PR person, what skills would you bestow on them? Sonya H. Soutus reveals how Coca-Cola is exploring such ideas to ensure it is well-placed to meet new challenges.



What if you were given unique powers that allowed you to design the ideal corporate communications and public affairs professional? What skills and experiences would you bestow on this person? How would this ideal professional be designed differently than the one you might have created a decade ago or even five years ago? How would you prepare this person for the challenges your organization will face in the next five years?

Clearly, we do not live in a world where senior corporate communications officers have the power to construct the ideal communications professional. Nevertheless, one could argue that this is a worthwhile thought experiment for anyone charged with running a communications department.

Recently, The Coca-Cola Company’s North American Public Affairs and Communications team embarked on a process similar to the one outlined above. We did so because we believe the radical shifts that have occurred in recent years in the business and communications environment have made it a necessity. And we cannot realistically expect the pace of change to slow in the foreseeable future.

Messages now zip around the world in the blink of an eye. Local issues are more frequently morphing into global issues. Company reputations and brands are built, debated and scrutinized by hordes of online bloggers and citizen journalists. Millions of stakeholders organize and discuss issues on new social media platforms. Indeed, a recent study by our agency partner, Burson-Marsteller, found that 65 percent of the Fortune Global 100 were using Twitter to regularly engage with their stakeholders and 54 percent had active Facebook fan pages. In short, speed, rapid change and even some occasional chaos are the new normal.

Inventory of capabilities

Given that reality, our Public Affairs and Communications team at Coca-Cola have been developing a comprehensive inventory of capabilities that we believe our team must possess to address these new challenges and be a significant partner to each of our lines of business.

Beyond just assessing our department’s skill needs moving forward, one of the focuses of this exercise was a reexamination of the Public Affairs and Communications function within a large global organization. The legacy of the communications function, we believe, has too often cast communications as a reactive function that at its best responds to the immediate needs of an organization but is not often a strategic partner that drives business results. We wanted to move beyond that legacy, and we needed to ensure that our communications staff has the skill set to make that leap.

For us, this meant focusing on three critical areas: digital media, marketing communications and business knowledge.

Not to be dismissed

The rise of digital and social media presents the most unique challenge and opportunity our profession has faced in recent years. While it is easy to dismiss social media as a phenomenon that communication professionals will be able to easily assimilate into our skill set, we think this would be a foolish miscalculation.

It might be relatively easy to join Facebook, create your profile, engage with your friends and convince yourself you are an expert. However, developing successful social media programs that support the company’s business and marketing strategies is something altogether different.

For those of us that have worked for years in communications, this is like nothing we have ever done. It means learning something new despite our years of experience. It also means leaving a comfort zone to confront an emerging reality that is not going away.

Secondly, for organizations like The Coca-Cola Company, corporate communications and public affairs staff now more than ever need a deep understanding of our brands’ marketing strategies and tactics. In order to be effective partners, we must grasp how we are communicating marketing messages.

While this has always been a best practice approach to communications, the digital communication age has made this an imperative. At a time when any stakeholder is just a few keyboard strokes away from any of our corporate messages or brand messages, it is inconceivable that our communications professionals would not be working hand-in-hand with our colleagues in marketing.

Deep knowledge

Finally, the communications staff should possess a deep understanding of the business they are charged with supporting. This knowledge should stretch well beyond the basics such as knowing where and how to retrieve corporate financial information and understanding the basics of operational planning. In the case of The Coca-Cola Company, this means the ability to have detailed conversations with any of our bottler colleagues about the financial and business dynamics that are impacting the bottling business. If we are to be seen as business partners, this means acting like a true business partner.

During an extensive exploratory process, we asked ourselves what would be an appropriate example of these three skills in action. That meant focusing on how they could drive short-term and long-term business results. Once we complete this process, we will launch a skills inventory survey as a self-assessment for our people throughout our entire North American Public Affairs and Communications department to determine and identify our current skill level as a department.

The skills inventory self-assessment will ask about experience levels, strengths and even areas in need of improvement. This will all take place in the context of our company’s changing business needs. We believe the results of the inventory will be a critical part of deciding how we move forward as a department over the next several years.

While not every organization will be able to delve this deeply into its communications department’s skill set, we would argue that developing some level of skills inventory is becoming a crucial aspect of running a successful public affairs and communications department. There is near universal agreement that the communications and business environment is changing more rapidly than anyone would have believed possible even a few years ago.

There should also be agreement that communications functions need to prepare for this inevitability by assessing their staff’s ability to adapt to this new reality. In a world where speed, rapid change and occasional chaos are the new normal, it would be shortsighted to think otherwise.

 


 

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The Author

Sonya H. Soutus

Sonya H. Soutus, Senior Vice President Public Affairs and Communications, Coca-Cola North America, has more than 25 years of broad-based international public affairs and communications experience. She joined The Coca-Cola Company in 1996 as Region External Affairs Manager for Ukraine and Belarus, and has since held a number of positions of increasing responsibility within the company’s communications and public affairs function. After graduating with honors from the Duquesne University School of Journalism, Ms. Soutus began her professional career as a newspaper reporter. She then held a number of public affairs and communications posts with major media organizations, including Westinghouse Broadcasting Corporation. From 1988 to 1994, she served in Rome and Ukraine as press secretary to the cardinal of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

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