Communicators need to shed cameo role for the lead

Ragan CEO puts AI, busy work and business acumen in their place.

➢ Communicators have a steady seat in the boardroom and are taking an active role in crafting corporate policy and voting on pivotal issues.

➢ Generative AI wipes out the busy work and allows communicators time to be strategic, creative and proactive.

➢ The word “strategic” has been scrapped from the term Strategic Communications for its obvious redundancy, and the Chief Communications Officer now reports to the CEO.

➢ DEI and ESG are no longer polarizing labels as the practices of inclusion, diversity and sustainability are as normalized as media relations and community relations.

Is this the future of communications, or is this just a pipe dream? For most communicators, it’s hard to imagine a future in which the scenarios above come to fruition.

There’s a small cohort, perhaps the ones attending Davos or other economic global forums, who have the seat at the table and the ear of the C-suite. But for most communicators, you are just too busy getting through the day.

You say you’re too busy. In Ragan’s 2024 Communications Benchmark Report, communicators cite that the top reason they can’t be more strategic is that they are being pulled in too many directions, with tasks and requests that keep them from big-picture strategy. This answer has topped the other choices for the past six years of the Benchmark Report.

The last several years have been seismic for communicators. As the stakes were raised during the early stages of the pandemic, and amid social justice and geopolitical unrest, communications met the moment. In my three decades in this space, I’ve never seen so much positive movement.

Communicators were front and center, keeping stakeholders informed, employees safe and connected. They weren’t in the boardroom, per se, but they were (and arguably are today) at the heart of their organization, not missing a beat.

The risk is real

But the more things changed, the less it stuck. As we look to the near future, we risk a slide back.

The tremendous influence and authority gained from 2020 to 2023 is at risk of slipping through the many priorities organizations face unless there is a collective awareness that Comms is still taking a back seat to other roles in the organization. Communicators need to come together around the core issues impacting society and their organizations and assume a role they might not have deemed themselves worthy of when they first entered the profession.

The stage is set to take the lead role on critical issues of the day: AI’s impact on work and society, employee upskilling, brand management and social issues, misinformation management and ensuring a reasonably diverse and inclusive work culture.

We are not talking side character or cameo roles — Comms should be the lead role in this regular series.  To do this, it’s critical that communicators get curious beyond the walls of its own comms department.

Here are some ways forward:

Play in the AI sandbox: Dabble in the potential of AI for you and your team and for the larger organization, asking questions that will positively transform business. Play with AI rather than pray that it won’t impact you. Partner with other communicators to create a framework that moves our profession forward.

Become business fluent: Treat it like learning a new language and commit to diving into the numbers, getting curious about the ecosystem that drives your business and dashboarding KPIs that truly tie comms to business growth.

Take the lead in upskilling: AI has accelerated the need for most professionals to develop new skills and competencies (upskilling has always been important). In addition to ensuring you and your comms team are learning new skills, you have the chance to be at the table formulating and overseeing a talent revolution. Somebody’s got to do it – why not you?

Be comfortable in the fog: With the U.S. election and nearly 40 other elections around the globe in 2024, this will undoubtedly be another year of uncertainty and division within your organization and among your customers and other stakeholders. Communicators will need to manage the murkiness and be the voice of reason, stability and truth.

Stop being so busy: As mentioned earlier, communicators are busy bees. But as you commit to taking the lead on upskilling, AI and strategic business counseling you’ll find that the stage is yours to take the lead. Decide where you need to spend your time or someone else will decide for you.

This is all to say: Buckle up, communicators, for an exhilarating ride.

Diane Schwartz is the CEO of Ragan Communications.

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