Corporate communications veteran Philippe Borremans calls on his European peers to take a less traditional approach to their profession. He points to the marketing department for useful inspiration.
Philippe Borremans is as a sought-after public speaker, lecturer, moderator, and host of the popular Wag the Dog podcast, one of the most popular sources of commentary on corporate communications in Europe.
I recently sat down for a conversation with Borremans about the corporate communications profession that is so dear to both of us. I wanted to know – among other things – how he has seen the profession evolve, how well corporate communications professionals manage to deliver the goods today, and what we can learn from our peers in Africa.
Taking an example from marketing
Jo: You’ve been in the industry for almost 25 years, as either a consultant or an in-house professional. The world has changed significantly since you started as a junior consultant at Porter Novelli in Brussels in 1995. How have the demands of corporate communications changed, and how well have we done to keep up?
Corporate communications is still a very traditional profession.
Philippe: I have very ambivalent feelings towards the state of corporate communications today. The world has indeed changed a lot in the last few decades and that change has been accelerating. The changes at play have been both of a sociological and a technological nature. Sadly enough, not many of us have kept up sufficiently. We are still a very traditional profession.
You would think that corporate communications professionals would excel at identifying important changes in their environment early on and then responding aptly to them. The truth is that this does not always happen at a quick enough pace.
Jo: Can you give me some examples of changes that we failed to identify early on?
Philippe: We were late to the game with movements like Occupy Wall Street back in 2011. Many professionals also underestimated the urgency of the (completely justified) demand for more privacy and data protection of the last few years. We also took our time to pick up on the MeToo movement and, the biggest risk of all, the global climate crisis. And as far as technology is concerned, it is only just now that we, as communication professionals, are starting to really understand the impact of technology on business communications.
Jo: Today, everybody is talking purpose.
Philippe: Right now ‘purpose’ is mostly just used as window dressing.
Jo: Is that not a pity? It need not be so. The research is pretty conclusive. Companies that manage to speak to the values of their stakeholders gain a competitive advantage over their competitors.
Philippe: Of course they do, but a great many corporate communications professionals are not with the program yet. Or maybe they are knowledgeable about purpose, but simply not in a position to inform and influence board decisions that could actually make purpose be more than window dressing.
Jo: All of this is a very familiar tune. Corporate communications is not at the table where the important decisions are made.
Philippe: In many cases it is not, while we keep talking and complaining about this at industry conferences. My advice to corporate communications professionals is to learn from marketing. Where do marketers get their credibility from? They are very sales-driven, they set themselves SMART objectives and are ready to be held accountable for achieving those objectives.
Why are we in corporate communications not turning reputation measurement into a hard, data-driven discipline the same way that marketers have been measuring conversions through the sales funnel for a long time now? Granted, progress is being made. Mature models of conceptualizing and measuring reputation management are slowly finding their way into corporate communications departments, but we could do better still, and I really wish things would move much faster.
Jo: Is this where corporate communications needs to plant its flag: reputation management?
Philippe: Of course. Who else will do this? Marketing is exclusively focused on clients and prospects. It does not have the skillset for this line of work. Only for corporate communications professionals has listening to the outside world always been second nature, even if, like I just said, we could be faster on our feet at times. The management of the reputation of a company with its different stakeholders is at the heart of what corporate communications is about.
Let’s copy from marketing its measurement ethos. And speaking of marketing, let’s also apply some of its modern methodologies. Why can’t corporate communications professionals produce content through a data-driven approach that is similar to the one that marketers apply? How many corporate communications professionals do you know that apply A/B testing to their content? Marketers have been doing this for years with great success. We can and should follow suit.
Belgian PR professionals should seek to own the Brussels bubble.
Jo: We are both Belgians who have learned our trade in the Brussels market and we still care, albeit from a distance now, about the Belgian communications industry. How do you evaluate where your Belgian peers stand today?
Philippe: At the risk of sounding repetitive, but when I said earlier that our sector is still a very traditional one that has a hard time keeping up with the pace of change, I also had Belgian peers in mind. You know, a couple of years ago, I participated in a panel discussion at a PR conference in Belgium where there was a lot of talk about reputation management and how critical it was becoming to our profession. I then dared ask what share of revenues the agencies present derived from reputation management, and not, let’s say, traditional media relations. That share for reputation management was very low. My question was not really appreciated, it was found to be too provocative. So be it. I don’t mind asking the difficult questions.
The fact is that I have never understood why a lot of Belgian agencies and professionals have shown such lack of ambition. American and British PR firms have for decades been taking a large share of the strategic work in the Brussels bubble, where I would argue that Belgian communications professionals have a natural skill set to potentially own this place. We are consensus seekers, we live cultural and linguistic differences every single day and easily adapt to any kind of environment. We are multilingual, have excellent PR schools and a ton of very talented communicators. In short, we have everything it takes to succeed.
Learning the trade in agencies
Jo:You have had a rich and successful career so far. What is your advice to young people who are reading this interview and want to follow in your footsteps? What should they study? Where should they find their first job after graduation?
Philippe: I obtained my degree at a PR school in Brussels. From there I went to work at Porter Novelli and after that agency experience, I went on to become first the Public Relations Manager for IBM Belgium and Luxembourg and then later I became IBM’s EMEA New Media Lead. The agency experience offered a learning curve that no other experience can possibly match and was for that reason an ideal stepping stone towards the in-house jobs that followed. This route from PR school to agency to in-house jobs worked well for me and I think it would still make sense for a lot of young people.
Jo: You would not have people go to business school?
Philippe: Not necessarily, but it all depends on who you are and how you want to learn. I like to learn on the job so I did not feel the need to pursue an MBA at any time in my career. Different experiences, in-house and in agencies, taught me all about accounting, finance, and the other business fields of knowledge. Maybe, come to think of it, If I could turn back the clock, I would add an extra year of sociology to my education to sharpen my understanding of the dynamics behind societal changes.
Africans will do PR their own way
Jo: In the last few years you’ve extended your scope into Africa. You lived in Morocco for three years (2016-19) and have worked throughout the continent as a freelance consultant specializing in risk and crisis communications. What does the corporate communications practice in Africa look like and what can we learn from our African peers?
Philippe: The African practice is making great strides. Gone are the days that consultants from London or Paris would be flown in because there was nobody with the necessary know-how at hand.
Jo: That is good news. So what is the African way?
Philippe: There is a saying in Africa that goes as follows in English: “You might have a watch, but we have the time.” Africans take their time to establish and maintain relationships with their stakeholders. They sit down with one another to discuss in great length how they will proceed before any project gets started. Unlike in Europe or North America where people take the time (because they have to) to repair things that have gone wrong, Africans talk with one another to make sure that nothing goes wrong to begin with.
African PR professionals are discovering their own unique voice
Africa has its own African Public Relations Association (APRA) that helps Africans discover their own unique African identity and voice as communication professionals. Our African colleagues are open and willing to learn from the rest of the world, but they will adapt to what works in Africa and develop their own solutions. I think that this is a great development. Let me add to this that because the African communication profession is so young, people can really start from a blank slate and skip some of the steps that the rest of us had to take to get us where we are now. They can’t be tied to “the old way” of doing things and are really finding their own voice. This combined with the energy of its people and the promising business environment will make Africa the continent to watch in the coming years.
Lifting all boats with IPRA
Jo: You are a Board Member with the International Public Relations Association (IPRA). This organization is not very well known in Europe and North America. What is the value proposition of IPRA for communication professionals?
Philippe: IPRA was founded in 1949 and is one of the oldest PR member associations in the world. IPRA is the most international and diverse membership association in our industry. The association lifts the profession in those countries that do not have a strong national sector federation. It does this through partnerships with local initiatives in countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Africa and many other parts of the world. It’s important work and I am proud to be able to contribute to it.
An inclusive community of learners
Jo: You are gearing up for a virtual public relations summit where communication professionals will hear from no fewer than 30 specialists in diverse domains of communications. Here you are offering an exchange of know-how between peers that is meant to offer a learning opportunity for all involved, through the use of modern tools. This summit is a nice condensation of everything Philippe Borremans stands for, is it not?
Philippe: Well, I hope to make a modest contribution to moving us all forward together, yes. I want this virtual summit to be very inclusive in different ways. The speakers will come from all continents and cover internal, external, digital and crisis communications. I want this virtual summit to also be a real representation of our global profession, so I made sure to make it gender agnostic, diverse and truly global. There will be no panels made up exclusively of white males. And since everything will be happening online, it will be accessible on demand through any kind of connected device, with basic, but full access to every single presentation completely free of charge.
Did you enjoy this interview with Philippe Borremans?
You might also like my piece on benchmarking where I warn against some of the dangers of relying too heavily on the technique in communications.