Communicators of the Future: Order-Takers Need Not Apply

March 4, 2020

Communications is changing at an unprecedented pace as attention spans shrink, channels expand, technology evolves, and data has become big. Micro-targeting, visual storytelling, influencer marketing, bots, optimization, algorithms, and AI are all now part of the communications mix. It used to be all about carefully crafted talking points and press releases, or mass-audience marketing campaigns planned many months ahead. Today company heads are expected to go on camera instantly and discuss complex issues like coronavirus or data privacy in response to a cultural trend or crisis that extends its reach in hours, not days.

Conversations are now opportunistic and quick to head in unexpected directions. Reputations can be impacted by the wrong response, or even slow engagement by the company. One-way messages are now two-way dialogues carried out online, with the potential to mobilize mass audiences in minutes with the right content addressing a cause or product they’re passionate about.

We’re in a communications free-for-all. And I find it exhilarating.

I don’t see it as a threat to reputational risk. Managed thoughtfully, it’s an incredible opportunity. Companies can seize the change to connect more authentically and get to better business outcomes. As an example, think about unscripted conversations like Twitter data, WeChat activity or live chat. The ability for a client like Wendy’s to humorously react in real time always defending fresh beef, or for an airline to help me rebook a flight or find my luggage via Twitter. Or the retailers using AI to analyze customer chat sessions to uncover patterns that point to future products. But what really excites me about this transformation is what it means for our profession: it’s a chance to be more strategic in the counsel we offer and the outcomes we drive.

Ketchum has been evolving in this direction for some time. In May 2018 we announced our own evolution from public relations agency into a full-service global communications consultancy. We reorganized our North American business to give clients access to deep industry or specialty expertise in real time anywhere in the firm to match their daily needs, and give our own people more career mobility and flexibility. We created a “fix and flex” model for clients so their core account team could be expanded to tap specialists at a moment’s notice. Our in-house producers could be activated to capture video or an influencer team assembled to help our clients quickly identify the right third-party authority to endorse their POV.

We also have been investing in technology and training. We need to get to stakeholder insights quickly, have the right channel approach and be efficient with client spend. We need to leverage what analytics uncovers and marry it with strong creative to break through the clutter.

Evolving into a consultancy was motivated by what our clients need. They want trusted advisors, not order-takers. They want partners who go beyond the brief. They value help navigating the current landscape and anticipating what’s next. They want solutions that ladder up to strategic business results – not stunts or creative designed for short-term impact but not for alignment with their values or brand personality.

Ketchum’s evolution and restructuring to eliminate geographic boundaries was recently recognized with an award for Best Agency Disruption. I think we’ll prove to be just the first of the major global players in our industry evolving in this direction. It’s what companies need as communications becomes increasingly more critical to the C-level.

We are now evolving our brand to match. We’ve created a new design system and tagline, empathy + intelligence. It reflects who we are and how we solve problems. It equals creative solutions that provoke action and change minds (or even the world). I believe this mix of being human-centered and business-focused is what makes us the most creatively awarded firm in our industry and a consistent winner of Top Place to Work awards.

Ketchum is still in the early stages of a journey to reshape how we imagine and create solutions. Reach out if you’d like to discuss how we can help you do the same.

As President and CEO of Ketchum, a top-five, global communications consultancy, Barri Rafferty oversees Ketchum’s offices and affiliates in more than 70 countries.

Outside of Ketchum, she participates in a number of groups including the sustainability task-force for the World Economic Forum and is a member of Arthur W. Page Society Page Up program. Rafferty sits on the board of StepUp, an organization with the mission of empowering girls from under-resourced communities to become confident, college-bound, and career focused and she is also a member of the governing body of OmniWomen, Omnicom’s Leading Women’s Network, for which she holds quarterly panel discussions featuring prominent women. She is the recipient of the Plank Center Milestones in Mentoring Award.

Barri is a graduate of Boston University (M.A) and Tulane University and enjoys watching soccer, volleyball, and dance – especially when her son and daughter are involved! Connect with her on Twitter: @barrirafferty