Put the human element back into communications, says comms expert

SOURCE: Nicholas Kamm/AFP
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, in Washington, DC on July 31, 2020.

By U2B Staff 

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A global health crisis. The US-China trade war. Racial injustice leading to the uprisings led by the Black Lives Matter movement. All these amidst the backdrop of rising economic inequality has inflicted a cataclysmic effect on businesses in just about every industry imaginable, and communication professionals are no exception.

Jim Macnamara, a Distinguished Professor from the School of Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, notes that the corporate environment is also in the midst of significant change, with calls for companies to have a social purpose and engage in ethical investments.

So, what does the future of corporate communication look like? 

“Corporate communication professionals not only need to be up to speed with change, but they need to be in a position to give strategic advice to senior management to help them engage with the changing social, political, and cultural environment. They need to be ahead of the curve,” said Macnamara in an email interview with U2B

communication professionals
Communication professionals must commit to lifelong learning to stay relevant. Source: Jim Macnamara

The Australian is internationally recognised for his research into evaluation of public communication and for his work on organisational listening. He has also authored 16 books.

He notes that communication professionals can do this by upskilling, with technology being an area for constant upgrading of knowledge and skills.

“Surveys such as The Communication Monitor, which is now conducted on four continents, shows that corporate communication and PR professionals still report a lag in acquiring advancing skills in using and advising on new communication technologies. That seems to be an obvious and unacceptable gap,” said Macnamara, who is a visiting professor at LSE’s Media and Communications Department and as well as at the University of the Arts London College of Communication.

But soft skills are no less important than hard skills.

Macnamara emphasised that communication is about bringing people together to share and agree on issues. 

“Despite using lots of technologies and tools, communication at its core requires an understanding of psychology, sociology, and politics. It also has to traverse cultures. And it needs to be grounded in the humanities. People now, and always, want and expect empathy, respect, understanding, and ethical treatment,” he said. 

It’s essential for communicators in corporations to shift from merely focusing on corporate profits and marketing buzz to ensuring that they continue to pay attention to the human aspects.


How will technology affect communication-related roles?

Automation is a major concern for many, and Macnamara notes that there are aspects of communication roles that are at risk of automation.

For instance, we’re already seeing technology such as AI chatbots handling messaging activities for organisations’ customers. 

The internet and social media have also helped companies reach a wider audience, in addition to easing communication with the general public, the media and investors about important organisational developments. 

Macnamara believes that technical functions in corporate communication and public relations, such as producing materials for publications and websites, responding to posts on social media and arranging events, will be automated.

But strategic functions will still require the human touch.

For instance, an important role of corporate communication includes giving strategic advice to management, which cannot be done by machines as it requires interpretation, judgement, and creative thinking.

“There is a continuing demand – even a gap for strategic communication counsel and advice. But many of the basic functions will be automated,” he said. 

The future of corporate communications

As digital transformation continues to take place, the future of corporate communication will continue to be shaped by new technologies such as AI, bots, machine learning, and data analytics.

Macnamara also believes social purpose will continue to grow in importance in organisations. This will be a positive change as public and private companies go beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is often window-dressing, to genuinely accept a responsibility to contribute to society as well as their shareholders’ pockets.

Corporate communications and PR may not necessarily continue as a distinct function in organisations and may shift to marketing. But Macnamara believes that this is a mistake.

“While marketing is one key function in commercial organisations, it is not the only reason for communication. Communication is required with government, local communities, employees, investors, and many others. 

“Furthermore, many audiences do not want the salesy and promotional messages and tone of marketing. During the COVID-19 crisis, for example, it has been shown that CEOs and organisation executives need to be empathetic and authentic, and they need to be listening, not just spruiking,” he explained. 


Areas for communication professionals to upskill in

In many professional fields, an undergraduate degree is often an entry-level qualification; to stay relevant as a communication professional, lifelong learning is essential. 

“To get a seat in executive teams and boardrooms, corporate communication professionals need advanced education, such as a Master’s degree in a relevant field. That might be communication, or it could be related to the sector in which they work, such as finance, information technology, or health,” he explained.

“I did a Master’s degree and a PhD while I was in professional practice. I found that most of the consultants in Deloitte and McKinsey had MBAs and PhDs. Corporate communication needs to grow up to compete.”

To cope with the rapid rate of change, short courses, hackathons, and even microcredentials will also become increasingly important.

He puts it simply: “Stop learning; stop growing. Stop growing, fall behind.”