We will occasionally have a guest writer here on the SME Strategies blog. Our first guest is a Senior Parliamentary Researcher to a Member of Parliament. Joshua’s perspective from the Palace of Westminster is an interesting one for us who live in the SME world. Comments on our blogs are very welcome. David.
Ask someone what they think of when the word “campaign” is put to them and the answer will probably involve politics, advertising or perhaps the military. In my field of politics people campaign for an election victory and then, if elected, campaign for policy changes. To maximise their chances of success, they identify a change which is advantageous for as many people or situations as possible and can therefore be sold as a no-brainer.
But even the best idea still needs selling, to the right people and repeatedly so. And even the best idea requires the right context to actually become reality. Good campaigning and good communication therefore go hand in hand.
For businesses, large or small, market share does not just materialise; it depends on marketing. Successful marketing is based around a powerful campaign in one form or another; but a powerful campaign is only powerful when it is communicated well to the right people at the right time.
The role of the Corporate Affairs director in large organisations is firmly established. Their work covers a whole multitude of sins – internal communications, external communications, stakeholder engagement, PR, crisis handling, reputation management, public affairs, government relations, public policy. Ask anyone in the “comms” world what these functions mean and they will give you slightly differing answers for all of them.
But in their simplest form they involve exactly the same goals, processes and methods: identifying your audience, targeting them with a simple message that cuts through, making sure everything you do revolves repeatedly and consistently around that message, and either fitting the message to the times or changing the context of the times to fit the message better.
So, should SMEs appoint a Corporate Affairs director, someone responsible for communication, publicity, PR and so on?
For SMEs, with their more limited resources, capacity and labour hours, it is arguably even more important to get their message working than it is for larger organisations, which can better afford to trial and test it. Given that SMEs may sometimes offer a single product or service, or at least a more narrow range of products, then communicating their offer is both even more important and potentially easier.
In our fast moving internet age, getting your message right and ‘out there’ is as important as the business or service you are offering. It must reach the target customers, it must tell them what they want to hear, and it must reach them often. They must be able to identify your brand when they see it, they must be able to define it, and they must be able to trust it.
A firm’s reputation must not only be established, but watertight. Its ability to take advantage of the news agenda must not only be reactive, but proactively reactive. Its relationship with the regulatory system must not only be to understand it, but to seek to change it to the firm’s advantage. Either that or a product is changed to fit better within it.
You might be thinking “Is this not just marketing?” Yes, there is a clear overlap but they are not the same. One can market a new product brilliantly but this is much more – it is about reputation and messaging, which can be pivotal to the success of a product launch.
Moreover, the ever growing political and regulatory influences on the private sector make it especially crucial to communicate not just with your customers, but with those who dictate the circumstances in which you market your business to those customers.
The important of government relations is more acute now than ever because of the opportunities and risks posed by our upcoming departure from the European Union. Policies will be rewritten, regulations will be redesigned, bodies will be restructured. If you are not there when that happens, how will the new world that emerges display the conditions in which your business can prosper best?
So, in practice, what could this mean for the SME?
- It might mean appointing an existing director to take the corporate affairs/ communications role under their brief
- A less senior person at the firm could be asked to undertake the day-to-day duties associated with the role, such as
- updating the website
- getting blogs written
- being on top of the relevant news agenda
- producing press releases
- strengthening key relationships
- understanding customers
- tracking what competitors are doing
- managing social media
- keeping up to date with policy developments
It means being proactive and reactive, by monitoring reviews given on the firm, approaching third parties to comment positively about the firm, and ensuring a steady stream of good news stories which keep the firm’s brand and name in the public eye. They must work hand in hand with the marketing team, of course, but their perspective must be both longer term and shorter term at the same time.
The future is about communicating, campaigning and winning, and Brexit will be a game changer for the better for some SMEs.
If you are not on the winning side, you are on the losing one, left behind with a message that fails to fit reality or a reality that fails to lift your message where it deserves to be.
I believe there is a real business opportunity for SMEs who grasp this – it may require a culture shift, from product to messaging, and many SMEs will be cynical. But there lies the opportunity. For those who embrace it, a competitive edge awaits.
Joshua Crossley is Senior Parliamentary Researcher to a Conservative MP.