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Corporate communication has evolved in response to evolving media. The focus is on generating interaction, not just top-down communication. Crisis communications remains an important function of corporate communicators.

Interaction Is the Goal, Not Just Top-Down Information

Corporate communications isn’t what it used to be. Criticism is unavoidable. External and internal communications have merged. Audiences and customers are more diverse. You are seemingly one ill-fated decision away from becoming a culture war target.

In days of yore, corporate communication centered on delivering messages down from top-floor corporate headquarters to employees and the outside world, including the press. The messages weren’t intended to invite responses.

In today’s world, corporate communication aims by design at interaction as well as information. Give-and-take, good and bad, is expected. Employees, customers, reporters and critics are part of the intended audience.

The beginning of corporate communication dates to 1906 when a journalist successfully aided industrialist John Rockefeller recover some of his lost public esteem. Since then, corporate communication has maintained a strain of crisis communication along with proactive corporate outreach.

The job was a little easier in the past. Before cable television, the internet and social media, there were just three main television networks, wire services, local newspapers and printed magazines. Information from corporate sources was by and large trusted and often accepted at face value.

As news media was absorbed into a larger pool of media and communication platforms, corporate communication was forced to adapt. The transition was smoothed by the advent of news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbesand Fortune that featured news about business with a corporate perspective. At the same time, print and online publications popped up devoted to labor, environmental and workplace equity issues. Corporations became the subject of news coverage not generated by their corporate communications departments.

Email and intranets began to blend with Twitter, websites and social media as avenues for discussing and criticizing corporate policies and behaviors. Corporate communicators lost their ability to target their messages. Instead, they faced the ongoing challenge of addressing incoming comments.

Kristi Knight

Kristi Knight, chief marketing officer for InMoment, says contemporary corporate communication can be described as three bucket challenges – crisis, contextual and continuous. Crisis communications isn’t always associated with corporate communication, but Knight is correct in making the link. Part of the corporate communication mission is to protect the reputation of the enterprise. There is no bigger reputational threat than a mismanaged crisis response.

Crisis Communications as Corporate Communications
An unsung benefit of crisis communications planning is development of the teamwork that is required for effective crisis response. Teams need the skill to “coordinate in real-time and draft culturally sensitive and inclusive communications for company leadership to review and distribute,” Knight says.

Crisis response demands coordinated internal and external communications. Employees should never have to read or watch TV to learn about a crisis or a response. With smartphone pictures and videos, affected audiences don’t have to wait for official communications to see what is happening. Making internal and external communications consonant and in a corporation’s authentic voice should be a goal of crisis response, according to Knight.

An increasingly common crisis is doing something or saying something that triggers the outrage of culture warrior critics. The makers of M&Ms learned that lesson after changing the shoes of one of its “spokescandies” from high heels to walking shoes, which Tucker Carlson decried as the byproduct of “woke” corporate thinking. After all the to-do of Green M&M’s footwear, the entire cast of cartoon members was retired to the candy jar.

Continuous Communications to Retain Market Visibility
Keeping a brand’s face in front of target audiences is a joint effort by marketers and corporate communicators. Continuous communications to audiences ranging from customers to TikTok influencers has become a mainstay assignment for corporate communicators. They don’t have the luxury any more of sending something to media outlets with the expectation it will be printed. Nowadays, they have to pitch stories, often with angles designed to appeal to a news outlet’s specific audience.

Knight’s idea of contextual communication involves connecting a corporate product or mission with current events. Newsjacking is a form of contextual communication aimed at riding a news wave to gain visibility. A great example was when Oreo posted its “you can still dunk in the dark” Twitter ad minutes into a 35-minute blackout in the Superdome during the 2013 Super Bowl.

Corporations have discovered – or been prodded – to speak up in response to major events such as the murder of George Floyd and the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde. They also have chosen to express support for causes, which can and often does spark backlash from conservative or progressive sources.

Sometimes the push to comment or take a stand comes from employees, which is what happened when Disney didn’t initially speak out against Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation. When Disney officially took a side, it engendered an ongoing battle with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and a source of continuing crisis communications.

Corporate communications may seem like a staid corner of the public relations profession. It’s not.

To some, corporate communications may seem like a staid corner of the public relations profession. Maybe that was true once upon a time, but not so much now. Knight’s three-pronged description of corporate communication – crisis, continuous and contextual – evinces a recognition of the fundamental importance of communication capability across the spectrum of communication challenges and opportunities for a corporation or any organization.