Interview with Björn Edlund: Corporate Affairs with purpose and flair

CCO

Björn Edlund is a widely recognised PR pioneer. Over a 20 year period, up until 2010, he supported 11 CEOs as head of corporate communications in three issues-rich multinationals, Royal Dutch Shell plc, ABB Ltd and Sandoz AG. His focus as a public relations practitioner is the role of business in society. We sat down with him to discuss the role of corporate affairs in modern business.

Q: The landscape of corporate affairs, public relations and communication has changed significantly throughout your career. To what extent have the boundaries blurred between communication and the practice of corporate affairs/ public relations? Is it getting harder to know where the profession adds value?

It is good that boundaries blur. It makes it easier to work together. Heads of corporate communications usually are best placed to take a 360-degree view. And we hold the pen. So we can gently steer our sister stakeholder-facing groups in the company. But to add value, we must always focus on what helps the business, and never on who’s more important.

We add value by projecting PR work beyond the traditional areas into the realm of engagement. By all means, let’s be the “Rajas of Reputation”, the “Brahmins of Brand”, and the “Wise Wizards” who pull PR rabbits out of a hat and know how to make the truth beautiful. Good, necessary and measurable stuff. But not sufficient – never has been. It is in the stakeholder reality we add value, by ensuring the company interacts constructively with all folks who have an interest in us.

Reputation is built through performance, behaviour and communications. And reputation is our remit. Last point: in order to ensure we create the right structures and processes in our function, the CCO must be a good general manager.

Q: Based on your experience as head of corporate communications at Royal Dutch Shell and at ABB, what is the key to successful communication during a crisis?

You have to know when to hold it, know when to fold it, know when to walk away and know when to run. Kenny Rogers aside, transparency, resilience, speed of communications, a broad perspective and an open mind are key success factors. Know your issues and your stakeholders – backers, onlookers, critics and foes. Prepare and practise. And practise some more.

When a crisis strikes, do three things: Admit you have a problem. Take responsibility for the problem. And offer solutions that are designed to benefit all involved, and not just to get you out of trouble.
As the weeks and months go by, look for the right moment to pivot out of the crisis. But it’s only over when those affected lift their “siege”. When that moment comes, launch – with others – a longerterm initiative that shows that the company has learned a lesson. Too many companies, like VW now, say way too early that they are “turning the page”. Done that. Doesn’t work. In BP parlance, you’ll “get your life back” when stakeholders feel that you deserve it.

The absolute key here is the company mindset. If a crisis catches your company unprepared, it will almost inevitably trigger a bunker mentality. In the bunker, the unprepared team usually gets stupid. It is as if the crisis sets off primordial response mechanisms – defensiveness, denial, fight or flight, head in the sand. No oxygen seems to get to the brain. And as Frank Zappa said: “The mind is like a parachute. It only works when it is open.”

Q: You are known for promoting SQ, or “societal intelligence”, as a means of understanding and navigating stakeholder opinions. How can corporate affairs and communication professionals develop high SQ and promote societal intelligence in their organisations?

It is in the CCO role of interpreter, integrator and coach that SQ resides. Be the one who explains the world to the company, as well as the company to the world. Help the C-Suite get “the pre-existing social contract” that stakeholders’ expectations rest on. Help build these expectations into your engagement plans, and into your business strategies. Make outside-in thinking part of the culture.

So, what’s SQ? How does it fit with IQ and EQ? Companies first and foremost must know their stuff, and they need a smart, dynamic strategy in order to beat the competition. That’s where IQ comes in. Strategy is about what we do and how we do it. Secondly, they need a vibrant, authentic culture based on shared values expressed through sound behaviours.

That’s where I believe EQ sits – it’s about who we are and what we stand for. And to tie culture and strategy into an aspiring proposition that both motivates internally and opens doors externally, companies need a clearly articulated purpose that expresses our role in society.

That’s about why we exist, our raison d’être. This is where my idea of SQ comes in. What then really matters is the combination of culture, strategy and purpose, IQ, EQ and SQ. A company in tune with society will always fare better – that’s why SQ is important. The CCO is the steward of SQ. SQ gives her or him the licence to have a complementary point of view. If everyone thinks like the boss, no one thinks at all.

“You can change the world — one company at a time — as a communicator.”

Q: What measures have you used during your career to evaluate the effectiveness of public affairs and customer engagement efforts? How can public affairs leaders demonstrate to senior management the returns gained from investing in communication?

First, it is always about more than numbers – an appreciation that communicators add value by seeing things differently from those staring at Excel spreadsheets. As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, nor can everything that counts be counted.” How do you measure good judgement? What value do you put on arguably the most important contribution of a CCO – that of helping the business think things through and thus preventing stupid decisions?

It is key to agree upfront how communications will be assessed. We need metrics and measures. But the one time in my career when communications had its biggest impact, we didn’t measure at all over a four-year period. Too busy and later too broke. This was in ABB, as we went from boom to close to bust and back to normal in 2000–2004. But we had daily chats with the leadership about the direction, the why. What we did was up to us in PR.

In normal times, we should use metrics that reflect how we affect business outcomes. Net promoter scores work fine if you’re a consumer or service company. Project execution timelines work if you’re putting up oil rigs or otherwise have environmental and social impacts on communities. The latter are the sort of business activities that communities can stop or at least seriously slow down through legal or regulatory challenges, or effective social – and/ or social media – campaigns.

Every month of delay comes with a cost. If stakeholder engagement can help avoid obstructions, that has a very direct business value.

But we’re not there yet, compared to the clean metrics of Marketing, Finance or HR. We need better alignment around professional governance (what does good governance look like?), processes (how do we do it?) and metrics (PR outcomes plus business outcomes) to truly demarcate the art, craft and science of communications and become a real profession.

Q: Many public relations agencies and corporate affairs teams are struggling to hire top talent. How can companies revive the image of the profession in order to appeal to the younger generation? What factors can help to retain & nurture top talent?

Let’s put the word out that this beats working for a living. And that you can change the world – one company at a time – as a communicator. I believe that. But, seriously, business is under siege. We’ve become a “necessary evil” to many young people. No surprise that traditional companies find it difficult to hire the best talent, across all business and technical disciplines – let alone in PR.

But let’s light a beacon. Only a better reputation can help business attract the gifted and diverse workforce it needs to be in tune with our changing world. There is plenty of need, room and opportunity for young people who can imagine a better future, who can write, understand people and situations and have the courage to speak up.

It is hard to make young people see what a great influence they could have on corporations. But look at my journey. I switched to PR in midstream from a solid journalism career. I had been an international news agency correspondent, bureau chief and news editor for 12 years with first UPI and then Reuters. Then I joined a small PR consultancy, to work with a client that later hired me as CCO. And I switched in great part because I was convinced that business can be a force for good. I’m still convinced of that, despite all the problems we see.

So, let’s make sure aspiring PR folk study the right stuff. Business, political science, economics and some other social studies (of how society works) along with the craft skills needed in public relations. A broad general knowledge base is so important; otherwise we, too, become the obedient fact churners. A well-rounded communicator keeps a sound distance from all those whom she or he counsels. Loyal, not subservient. We work for the company, as does the CEO.

How is the role of the Chief Communications Officer changing? What skills and qualities will corporate affairs and communication professionals need to succeed over the next 10 years?

Managerial skills, business acumen and strategic insights are becoming more important. Add counselling skills and the inclusive touch of the integrator. At the Arthur Page Society, where I have an outreach role in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, we have just launched a report that talks about this: “The New CCO, Transforming Enterprises in a Changing World”.

In addition to these foundational and integrator roles, the report probes how the CCO will need to become a builder of digital engagement systems – a systems thinker and strategist of engagement, both online and in real life.
In our radically transparent world, with more empowered and demanding, networked stakeholders, CCOs must be the catalyst for change – for more openness and greater willingness to cooperate across what used to be a big divide between companies and their more critical stakeholders.

So, general management skills coupled with coaching skills, data insights and the gumption to stand for change. It’s a fascinating challenge. It makes me wish I was 40 again, walking into that HQ meeting room where options were about to be weighed, in that pre-decision strategic gestation phase when we who hold the pen – and can hold up the mirror – make a real difference.

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