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‘It’s the Business, Stupid’

To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s ’92 campaign manager, CEOs are focused on their businesses; everything else – including communications – is considered subordinate to this end

James Carville, one of Bill Clinton’s campaign managers during his first presidential bid, was famed (or notorious) for his insistence of driving every single conversation towards the incumbent Republicans’ Achilles heel; the state of the US economy, particularly across middle America[1]. In effect, whatever the issue, question, discussion, debate, data point being cited, Carville systematically highlighted the plight of Middle America’s working class. “It’s the economy, stupid,” became a mantra and, ultimately, part of the American political lexicon.

Communications professionals could certainly learn from Carville’s relentless focus in terms of messaging and consistency. But, after participating in this year’s Global PR Summit[2], I believe that Carville’s message is even more fundamental than messaging strategy. Permit me to share a secret which I picked up during the aforementioned conference: most business leaders are not as passionate about communications as PR professionals. Yes, really; the nuances of message development, thought leadership, issues hijacking, influencer engagement, social engagement (a few of our ‘favourite things’[3]) are simply a means to an end for the majority of CEOs.

We can wax as lyrical as we like about viral campaigns, strategic content, or co-creation, but unless we present these concepts in genuine business terms, our credibility and access to the C-suite will remain the exception rather than the norm. For almost every speaker – from in-house to agency, from CMO to entrepreneur — the singular most important attribute of today’s communications professionals is the ability to understand, and address or mitigate business issues. As Carville, himself, might have said, it’s the business stupid.

How many of us actually understand the issues facing our clients? Are they trying to maintain market share amidst a price war, differentiate themselves within a consolidating market, enter a new geography or sector, manage a reputational deficit which is mitigating their ability to charge a premium or recruit at a discount, facing regulatory shifts which could reduce their competitive advantage, exit a traditional business which is becoming obsolete, mitigate the impact of a group of activist investors…? These are pretty standard scenarios, all of which can be mitigated (if not necessarily, solved) by effective communications; how many of us actually put these issues at the centre of our PR strategies?

The same won’t necessarily be driven by a desire to ‘maximise positive coverage’. The volume of media clippings may actually be immaterial to the issues at stake, which could require the brand to engage new audiences for the first time, or adjust its positioning to consider a different sector. Think of Microsoft moving beyond its software licensing model which used to generate 60% of its revenues and 90% of its profits. The required campaign could be designed to reduce the cost of hiring a certain type of recruit – think of Goldman Sachs now describing themselves as a ‘technology company’[4], or Netflix moving beyond home delivery, towards content production, via a technology, all in less than a decade[5].

At this year’s Global PR Summit, roundtable after roundtable, discussion after discussion, presentation after presentation, focused on PR’s ‘right’ to be part of the C-Suite; “This is our time,” came the message. But I believe a more relevant insight came from a number of CMOs also present, and whose peers are already at the top table. In their case, it’s not about marketing; they are not engaging CEOs about branding, customer engagement or above-the-line spend. They are going direct to the business market share, risk mitigation, value addition, quarterly numbers. Their vernacular has become synonymous with that of the CEO.

This is a key insight. How many of us – even, internally – engage in business conversations about our clients’ businesses, do we really have a point of view about our clients’ competitive advantages and how sustainable are these, can we interpret the last few quarters’ results and spot a trend? It’s not just that the business is currently the CEO’s favourite conversation; as the marketing department and, on the agency side, management consultancies have realised, it’s their only conversation.

James Carville’s insistence that one single issue would decide the ’92 US election helped secure Bill Clinton’s first presidential mandate. The stakes may be lower for PR firms trying to scale the value chain, but the message is clear. In Carville’s terms, it’s the business, stupid.

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