Changes in corporate communications 1977-2017



I started my first job in CorpComms practice with Shell in 1977 and finished my last with G4S in 2012, travelling by way of McDonald’s, Microsoft and BT.

Since then I’ve also been privileged to have some comparatively small insight into those roles in client companies as a communications consultant with Burson-Marsteller. Our clients are invariably confidential and never advertised, so those remain anonymous here.

Looking back over those decades, interrupted only by a decade or so working in politics, I’ve seen dramatic changes in the world of corporate affairs.

  • By way of context, I use “CorpComms” here to mean internal and external corporate communications, or what some call corporate affairs or (a bit of) public relations. The terms are virtually interchangeable and in my experience dictated by the fashion of the time and the internal corporate vocabulary.
  • Throughout my in-house career I only ever worked for multinational corporations, each the global leader in their market sector. The same pretty much applies to clients who were all either market leaders or challengers to be so.
  • My experience has been international spanning B2C, B2B, and B2G. In-house market sectors as a practitioner included energy, food, technology, secure logistics and currency printing and processing, and my consultancy experience included food, retail, telecom, banking and financial services, and healthcare.
  • My observations can only therefore apply to businesses of such organisational scale and global reach, and may only apply to the ones I’ve known well, but there may be some more general conclusions to be drawn of wider interest.

These are my top 11 most significant changes. As any Spinal Tap fan knows, all the best things – go to 11.

These have occurred to varying degrees in all of the businesses in which I have been a CorpComms practitioner or as been a consultancy adviser.

In some cases they were nearly all present back in the 1990s when the most significant changes in CorpComms took place at these levels of activity.

What I find interesting looking at discussions online in 2017, which I now read as an observer not a practitioner or adviser, is some of the issues and changes we saw, created and debated inside multinational corporations at the end of the last century and beginning of this are only now being discussed as developments now for smaller businesses and agencies.

Maybe that is the gestation period of big change in the CorpComms world.

Here’s my TOP ELEVEN:

  1. Where CorpComms is concerned most with issues management it has developed to sit alongside, and sometimes within, legal and corporate governance functions. An increasing number of CorpComms leads come from a legal background.
  2. Where CorpComms is concerned most with shareholder value, it always was within a Finance division function, but this seems to have consolidated with Financial PR seen as a completely separate discipline to other CorpComms.
  3. Where CorpComms is led by a sufficiently senior individual seen as someone who can play a part in the running of the business beyond being the communications expert, CorpComms has often gravitated to be a boardroom function with direct report to the CEO.
  4. External agencies offering CorpComms support have become more specialised or have simply become more known and respected for some areas of work than others. This has led to increase in portfolio approach to agency appointment with fewer clients appointing a single agency.
  5. CorpComms has become a more evidence-based function drawing heavily on better data analytics to understand diverse and fluid stakeholder audiences. This has always been the case as far as intent is concerned, but the quantity and quality of both the data and the analytics has improved.
  6. An increasing number of CorpComms functions have design thinking built into their whole-business strategy making. This has been driven by the increase in management consultancy involvement in comms work, particularly when driving and communicating major internal change or business transformation and external brand positioning.
  7. A number of the big business professional services firms have either acquired or developed CorpComms functions. In the 1990s big law firms started this move, but as law firms have themselves become broader BPS firms, this has increased. This has probably had the single biggest influence on the repositioning of and greater recognition for both in-house CorpComms and external advisers, not least in raising remuneration levels.
  8. Internal Communication has become a key pillar of CorpComms. Traditionally, and still in some old-fashioned organisations, IC sits with or within Human Resources/People Asset functions. Where it sat within CorpComms traditionally it tended to be a “sending stuff out” function and then one obsessed with Intranet activities. This devalued its significance as a business change function. In progressive organisations CorpComms is seen as an integrated function which doesn’t just communicate things other people do, it uses communication to drive change both with employee/partner motivation and productivity, and external brand positioning.
  9. The key development in the positioning of CorpComms as a strategic function has been the better understanding of opportunities and challenges from the outside-in, and communication from the inside-out. This more rounded approach to CorpComms, and alignment with other comms functions including marketing, consumer PR, publicity and promotions, experiential event management and sponsorships, has in progressive companies developed CorpComms into a function which business leaders can appreciate as a discipline which can make things happen, as well as fix things.
  10. The single biggest change regarding agency appointment has been the increase in influence of and in some cases complete takeover of hiring processes by procurement functions. My controversial opinion is that this is an entirely negative developement. Communications is an art not a science, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and good CorpComms work is not something which it easy to put a price on before it has delivered the goods. When hiring for in-house or appointing advisers, my view based on experience is firmly that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.
  11. Budgets have changed.  Or to be more accurate – we have changed budgets. Traditional budgets, for in-house practices and hiring advisers, drawn from the Comms line in a business budget seem to have decreased, in some cases dramatically. But “new” budgets have appeared (or been found) which are significantly bigger than the old ones. This is because of some of the other developments highlighted above. Businesses now see ROI for CorpComms funding from business transformation, legal, governance, and finance among other different ‘pots’. This has increased the hiring of agencies which can offer high-level strategic board level counsel, over ‘arms and legs’ resourcing.



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