PUBLIC RELATIONS The Image Business Polishing the corporate windows

Having burned its fingers on the hype that flamed out in the dotcom bust and its subsequent, scandal induced investor scepticism, it’s back to reality for corporate communications. It was common practice in the 1980s to use bells and whistles to deliver vital messages. But today’s image and communications mantra, says Insight Creative chief executive Mike Tisdall, is all about polishing corporate windows.
The practice of hiding the organisation behind corporate masks has, it seems, been marginalised by public intolerance for gloss and dishonesty. According to Tisdall, transparency is now the primary driver behind all good corporate communications.
He offers the gravitation away from triple bottom line (TBL) thinking as an example. TBL might have been fashionable five years ago but, says Tisdall, nobody talks about it any more. In an era where corporate communications delivery is less contrived, what was once referred to as TBL is now ‘given’ within the broader sustainability context.

Masks off
So with their masks off, what should good corporate communications reveal about organisations?
Corporate communications must unambiguously reveal what an organisation does, the values and drivers that underscore those activities, and the quality of management, according to Bina Klose, Insight Creative’s business development manager. Delivering the right messages will always require trade off between the written and the visual. “It’s case of getting the balance right. That means finding key messages first and then using the visual to tell the story,” says Klose.
Many companies struggle with balance and too many annual reports are reliant on the visual, says Geoff Suvalko, creative director with Designworks EnterpriseIG. It is, he says, too easy for the underlying persona within an organisation to get lost within starchy corporate management-speak. While web-casting offers major change in delivery options, Suvalko sees little evidence that local firms want to invest either the time or money in using this medium. “The use of web-casting is probably hampered by lack of CEO confidence to front-up on some issues,” he adds.
Air NZ makes good case study, according to Klose. After the hang over from the former board, it was important that subsequent annual reports be less about breast-beating and more focused on frugality and conservative optimism.

Highlighting reality
Not surprisingly, people simply aren’t judging the airline’s annual report – the flagship behind any corporate persona – the way they did during the wild and wacky 1980s when companies tried to outdo each other in the image-building stakes. “While the annual report used to be an end in itself, now it is used to highlight reality,” says Klose.
The by-product of the reality checks courtesy of Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals, is greater focus on the corporate governance content of the annual report. It is no longer good enough to simply be honest. Companies must now spend more time explaining how. That’s why Tisdall works closely with clients like Air NZ, and Waste Management to ensure the content of their corporate communications reflects the tone and style of management.
“It’s our job to create clarity and understanding. The essence of good corporate communications is openness, trust and confidence building,” says Tisdall. “Because of the ramifications of getting it wrong, we’ve noticed greater reluctance by CEOs to hype or even put their heads on the block through forecasting.”

Because top-line financial data is yesterday’s news by the time an annual report is published, the report’s value is being redefined. There’s no better evidence of this than the US-based Mead review of New Zealand annual reports that revealed over half (of those reviewed) didn’t start the chairman’s review until halfway through. The net effect of this, according to Tisdall, is that annual reports are now more about storytelling, underlying business trends and painting bigger picture issues than they are about financial reporting.
Not surprisingly, Tisdall sees more companies redefine what value drivers should underscore their annual report. For example, having concluded that the market is already aware of the latest financial details, Lion Nathan’s primary audience for its annual report, is internal recruiters, not shareholders. “It’s an absolute internal PR document used to attract top calibre recruits,” he explains.

Targeting specific messages
The ongoing need to pitch specific corporate messages means websites, though increasingly important, will never replace material in the communication stakes, says Barry Akers, director with financial PR consultancy Senescall-Akers.
The website is cost-effective means of keeping the market abreast of new developments but, because the internet audience is never under company’s control its content is far more generic. And badly constructed or poorly maintained website can do immense damage to company’s image, warns Akers.
When it comes to communicating with specific audiences there is, according to Akers, no substitute for well-organised road show and one-to-one “fronting up” sessions. And hard copy corporate profiles that allow companies to be more targeted with their messages are still in demand. “That said, the annual report is the best opportunity company gets to explain where it’s been and where it’s headed – so it should make the most of it,” he adds.

Maintaining consistency
With corporate communications becoming progressively more eclectic combination of printed and electronic media, how does any company maintain look and presentation standards?
According to Tisdall, it’s more about the need for consistency of message than any overly prescriptive approach. The speed at which email has replaced printed letterhead as the delivery mechanism for inter-company communications has prompted new rules for the way brands are presented.
The humble letterhead has been relegated to the wilderness but Tisdall says he is witnessing its resurgence as the template for all electronic communications. Branding and repetition are similarly important. “It’s not so much about the logo these days,” observes Tisdall, “as the visual language around it.”
He cites Gravity Coffee as an example. “Its distinctive persona – created using icons, photography and illustrations – surrounding the uniquely coloured packaging has helped turnover jump 35 percent since the brand was launched two years ago.”

How you say it
So how important is the choice of media used when delivering key corporate messages? To borrow that famous remark, is the media the message?
Klose thinks what is communicated is infinitely more important than the medium used to delivered it. “Media choice is not that important. It’s more important to ensure that what you say is honest, and that means having the right advice. Performance is everything. Our job is to reflect that performance.”
With honesty and credibility now regarded as essential “table-stakes”, companies, like Lion Nathan, are using their corporate communications to align their internal culture, educate stakeholders and differentiate themselves in the market, says Suvalko. He’s noticed companies using their annual report to take lead on issues. For example, squashed tomato adorning the cover of Westpac’s annual report few years back, was all part of the Australasian bank fronting-up to the market’s objection to the banking industry’s big profits.
Organisations are trying harder than ever to differentiate themselves. And that, according to Akers, means they need guidance with understanding how far to push their corporate communications without revealing too much of their competitive advantage. That means spending less time worrying about the delivery and getting the strategy right around what they’re trying to achieve. “A lot of judgement today is over how well you communicate. If you are able to communicate your busine

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