Besides being CEOs of some of the top companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, they all recognise the critical importance of Corporate Affairs to the businesses they run, and they have all been speakers at Corporate Affairs Thought Leadership Forums run by Anna Whitlam People.
In the latest event, held in April in Sydney, Alison and Chris were joined by Nestle Australia and Bank of Melbourne Chairman Elizabeth Proust and Mark Devadason, a former country CEO in Japan and Thailand for Standard Chartered and until recently the bank’s Global Head of Sustainability. The forum was built around the guest speakers and the opportunity to engage with them in an open, two-way dialogue. But feedback since the forum makes it clear that what many of the 30 participants most valued were the conversations with other Corporate Affairs professionals in similar, senior roles.
There was a strong desire to share views on the day to day issues they face as well as some of the wider philosophical debates on reputation management.
Chatham House rules prevent us providing a blow-by-blow account of the event. But there was a lot of debate on the challenge for global companies managing massive reputational disasters far away from corporate headquarters. In one such disaster we discussed how news broke on social media before it was reported by line management. In another Corporate Affairs closing down for the weekend caused massive problems when an issue broke on a Friday night.
There was a shared view that leadership at the CEO level is absolutely critical to getting the response to such a disaster right.
The importance of leadership and values to how companies approach reputation management generally was a common theme throughout the discussions. If a CEO is not interested and invested in the idea that reputation is crucial to success, the job of Corporate Affairs is always going to be an uphill battle.
CEOs play the greatest role in driving values and culture in big companies. What Corporate Affairs can deliver in any company doesn’t just depend on the quality of the people within the team. The value that the function delivers is shaped, or at least greatly influenced, by the culture and leadership of the organisation and by reporting lines and management structures.
At the forum there was a strong view that making the head of Corporate Affairs a direct report to the CEO and putting them on the Executive Committee sends a powerful message throughout any company.
However, there is an emerging trend for Corporate Affairs to report to a company’s Head of Risk. While this is sometimes a result of CEOs wanting to cut the number of direct reports they have, in some companies it does reflect a view that reputation is a critical business risk.
Leaders in these companies increasingly see Corporate Affairs becoming responsible for ensuring that an understanding of reputation risk is embedded across the business, and influences strategies, operations and processes.
They see the function working with the Risk Management team to ensure reputation risks are fully integrated into formal risk management policies and structures. They see the communicators – rather than risk managers – as responsible for arguing the business case for reputation risk management across the company.
This is a big change in the way Corporate Affairs is seen within many companies and the way people working within the function see themselves.
It means that Corporate Affairs teams will increasingly need people with commerce degrees and MBAs as well as people with communications degrees. They will also need people with analytical skills, emotional intelligence and cultural awareness, people who can influence senior leaders and put themselves in the shoes of stakeholders, clients, and customers.
Those kind of Corporate Affairs professionals will compete with lawyers and risk managers for the roles that head up an integrated risk and Corporate Affairs function.