To get the full story on corporate responsibility (CR) communications it’s important to look behind-the-scenes at how a communications firm operates. How do they support – and influence – clients’ CR communications? I sat down with Christian Hicks, Creative Director of Corporate Responsibility at AHA, to get the inside scoop.
TriplePundit: Tell me about AHA! What makes you different from other communications firms?
Christian Hicks: Our bread and butter is writing – that’s evolving as we grow, but our foundation has always been great writing and an appreciation of what it takes to create great content. It’s not just that we write but that we are writers – we see the world through that lens. Many of us were journalists before coming here, so there’s a great understanding of what it takes to tell a good story. That’s what distinguishes us. We approach the world with a writer’s eye rather than a design eye.
Other firms are very design centric. They think of solving problems in terms of design and think about the content as a support of strategy rather than driver of strategy. What we say is that the communications strategy really begins with understanding your story. That comes from the writing process.
3p: Given the connection between CR and communication, do you think CR belong inside the communications department, or should it be it’s own department?
CH: CR should stand on it’s own. When it’s done well, it’s influencing the strategic direction of the company, so if you pigeonhole it in the communications department, you lose out on the chance to have it influence the company at a larger level.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge connection between CR and communications, that’s why we’re here. CR gives companies an opportunity to engage meaningfully with and authentically with their audiences, and we want to help companies do that better.
Engagement is the principal upon which CR begins.
3p: How do you educate companies about the importance of engagement?
CH: If a company comes to us and says, “We want to tell people about what we did for CR.” We would say, “To what end? What do you want to achieve?” Informing is a shallow kind of communication that doesn’t give people any opportunity to act or respond. Engagement gives them a reason to come back to you or engage with others about you and in that way your story lives on.
Engagement is a higher form of communications, so we’ll always drive companies toward it.
3p: The classic examples of increased engagement have to do with social media – what advice do you have for companies that are smaller, or B-to-B, whose clients aren’t really reaching out to them online?
CH: Social media may not be the most important way for them to get their messages out. If you’re a mining company you have a very different set of stakeholders than McDonalds. There are regulators and policy makers and so your communication strategies have to take that into account.
Right now social media is mostly communication from consumers. You just have to re-think your strategy: figure out who you want to talk to, what you want to say and then create the means by which you can share that story. Make sure there’s an opportunity for feedback. Maybe it means more face-to-face communications, maybe you host a forum where you bring everyone together. Maybe you have to do more speaking in places where your stakeholders are meeting. It’s still engagement, it’s just a different way of doing it.
3p: What’s the next big trend in corporate responsibility communications?
CH: So many reports these days are focused on disclosure and transparency. It’s not that those aren’t important – they are – it’s that a document like this, and a campaign to promote it, has limited use. It doesn’t encourage engagement.
We see a shift from CR communications as a campaign to more of a platform or a forum. A campaign is a short lived, limited way to tell your story. If you think of CR communications as a platform, it becomes a long term proposition and opportunity for dialogue.
When done correctly, this platform can become the glue between a company and its stakeholders – a place for communication about CR to happen all year round.
This engagement approach is becoming more and more prevalent. Not that everyone has it figured out, but people are being more creative and open to what’s possible. From my point of view this is still very much in its infancy in terms of the tools we have at our disposal as communicators. That’s where AHA! can help.
3p: Do you have any advice for companies that are feeling that burden of reporting?
CH: The report gets the lionshare of CR attention and resources within a company and what I would say is that the report is important, it’s necessary, but don’t let it dominate your approach to CR communications.
Great information from the report may also turn out to be fodder for a blog post or a video down the road, or an example that gets inserted into a presentation being given by executives.