Managing corporate communications in the year ahead

This article was originally published in Mumbrella. 

Sefiani CEO and Founder, Robyn Sefiani and Sefiani Director and Partner, Nick Owens delve into the communications landscape in Australia, exploring the structural trends taking root and the new ones surfacing.  

These changes are complex, interrelated and affect communications in different ways. Some represent new threats and opportunities to brands and their custodians, while others hint at changes to the ways communicators do their work. 

Here are their observations on how to address these as we look to the year ahead. 

  1. Reputation management has never been more important

The scrutiny on corporate brands is intensifying. In a competitive market there is a premium on reputation and the pressure is on communicators and brands to burnish this valuable asset, with little margin for error. 

The past year has shown that stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders, the community, media – will not tolerate dishonesty or disingenuousness from corporates or brands. Discrepancy between what brands say and what they do is not an option, with this increasingly being clamped down on by regulators. We’re seeing this with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s new focus on investigating and prosecuting corporate “greenwashing”. 

In this environment, transparency and authenticity must be the default. Articulating aspirations and values remains essential, but so is being accountable by reporting where the organisation is falling short, and how progress is being measured. 

Brand safety is another increasingly vital reputation management priority. While brand safety audits have been the norm for corporates for some time, as the media landscape becomes more polarised, intense scrutiny is required when considering which channels are suitable for brand engagement. 

Sefiani has conducted a brand safety audit for one multinational brand operating in Australia and we’re expecting to see more this year as organisations drill down into not just which publications, but platforms, programs, issues or individuals they do or don’t want to align themselves with. 

Meanwhile, the proposed Australian Competition and Consumer Commission crackdown on social media influencers plays directly to brand transparency and integrity. With traditional media becoming fragmented, influencers now play a critical role for brands wanting to reach targeted audiences. The practice has been largely unregulated to date. Now, echoing the 1999 cash-for-comment scandal, influencers will be required to disclose if they’ve been paid to post, at risk of a $500,000 fine. Companies can also be fined up to $10 million for deceptive or misleading advertising, so they need to ensure their influencer engagement policies are watertight to protect their reputation in this field. 

  1. “Responsible business” sees prioritisation of ESG

Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) momentum is positive and irreversible, with tangible action now part of basic corporate hygiene. 

The next iteration may be the Responsible Business Charters we are now seeing many companies introducing. These include climate change mitigation initiatives alongside broad policies from First Nations Reconciliation Action Plans, to ethics and integrity in business, modern slavery and responsible procurement. 

A driver of this is the tight talent market, which has become even more pronounced since the pandemic. Many employees are unwilling to work for organisations not aligned with their personal values, and employers are responding with positive action . 

This coincides with the trend toward heightened internal communication. Surveys, feedback, and Town Hall meetings are common platforms for staff engagement and critical for leadership accountability. In our experience, they are especially indispensable in the rebuilding stage following a crisis or unsettling corporate event. 

  1. Get your crisis response house in order

Late 2023 saw two of Australia’s largest brands – Optus and Medibank – plunged into crisis following separate cyberattacks. With millions affected, the two companies’ responses will be crisis communications case-study fodder for years to come. 

In the end, neither came out of these incidents unscathed. What stood out in the Optus case was the breakdown in its relationship with a key stakeholder – the Federal Government – early in the response, following what turned out to be ill-advised and premature statements about the incident’s nature. Medibank handled the immediate aftermath well, but later stumbled with mixed messaging around the merits of paying the ransom demanded to avoid customer details being disclosed on the dark web. 

What were our key learnings from these incidents? 

First, the CEO’s personal response matters. When millions want reassurance and information, wooden delivery of rote talking points won’t cut it. Nor will delayed or confused messaging. Second, in a crisis covered by all major media outlets, every misstep is noticed. Make enough of them and before long the handling of the crisis itself becomes part of the media narrative, compounding brand damage. 

Finally, this is a reminder that cyberattacks are a real and pressing danger. Organisations have no excuse for not preparing accordingly by ensuring they are cyber resilient. Holding regular crisis simulation drills around attack scenarios is also vital to ensure the most effective response to a real incident. 

  1. Humanising leadership

A common thread linking the above trends is good leadership. Amid rapid change and uncertainty, clear communication from leaders – internally and externally – has never been more important. Good leaders need to be visible articulating what their organisation stands for, including around company culture and the standards expected of their people. When concerns surface, they must be addressed head on. These leaders are more likely to successfully guide their organisations through a difficult period, preserving brand and corporate reputation. 

CEO profiling has always been an important part of communications programs, but has taken on new prominence. LinkedIn has become the preferred platform for leaders wanting to drive a positive and authentic personal profile. It plays a central role in a curated CEO content strategy, combining statements of values, thoughtful commentary, strategic insights, and even personal vignettes through short-form video, to ‘humanise’ the CEO. 

  1. Technology matters

The recent launch of AI platforms ChatGPT and Bard triggered intense debate about the impact of this technology on knowledge and creative industries. It’s early days and the jury is still out. 

The more tried and tested digital platforms for media monitoring, sentiment tracking, social media listening, customer reviews and the micro-targeting of audiences are now indispensable for communicators, especially in crisis situations unfolding in real time. 

In a slimmed-down media landscape, integrated communications programs combining earned media coverage, owned channels and paid campaigns are critical to building brand and corporate reputations. Technology is the glue that binds it all together, driving efficiency, impact and measurability of outcome. 

One thing we can predict about 2023 is that it will be unpredictable. Communicators, as ever, will need to be nimble and adept in protecting and nurturing corporate and brand reputations.