The Changing Nature of The Communications Market
This article, written by Ralph Charlton, Interim Communications Executive, was originally featured in our 2018 Bridging the Gap report, which focuses on the UK communications, digital and marketing interim market. Our 2020 Bridging the Gap survey is now open – have your say today and you could win a £100 retail voucher of your choice.*
With over 20 years’ experience in the corporate communications industry, Ralph has been ranked one of the UK’s most influential PR professionals (PR week). He has built and managed company reputations to deliver strategic and commercial objectives for FTSE 100 companies, private equity and privately owned businesses.
While many organisations of different size and structure benefit greatly from using interims, organisation culture and business need are the key variables to consider. If there is a distinct communication challenge to solve, a clear deadline and a resource or skills gap then this is potentially the right environment for an interim with proven experience to add value, immersing themselves in the business for a fixed period on a full-time, or close to full-time, basis.
A rise in project assignments
Although the communications market is still quite fragmented in its approach to using interims there does appear to be more general recognition of the value interims can add and, by virtue, a willingness to use them. Some of this is driven by the fact that big retainers are increasingly being replaced by project work with more defined budgets, deliverables and desired outcomes. Therefore, the question often becomes who is best to lead the projects: in-house, agency or interim? Ultimately this will depend on what the challenge is, what skills are need and where the resource is available from (often at short notice).
More organisations are looking for multi-disciplinary and big-picture advisers
A significant change in the communications market over the past few years is that organisations are increasingly looking for multi-disciplinary, big-picture advisers and practitioners. Taking a purely "tech", "corporate" or "public affairs" stance, for example, is often too siloed, with more and more overlap between these areas. For example, many tech businesses are consumer facing, have regulatory hurdles to overcome and headline grabbing financial valuations with lofty investor expectations.
Therefore, business leaders need communications professionals who can think, advise, and act across many disciplines, audiences and stakeholder groups. Good interims can bring this breadth and depth of thinking, combined with a sleeves rolled up mentality to get things done – after all, it is essential for interims to be willing and able to move seamlessly between giving advice and doing the heavy lifting.
Examples where interims are “parachuted” in include M&A (both the communications around this and post-acquisition integration), IPOs, re-structuring and redundancies, organisation transformation, turnarounds and re-brands. Examples where interims are “parachuted” in include M&A (both the comms around this as well as post acquisition integration), IPOs, re-structuring and redundancies, organisation transformation, turnarounds and re-brands. Maternity cover and employee illness can also create a need for interim cover – these roles can be perceived to be less challenging, effectively just “holding the fort”, but this is often a misconception and depends on the organisation, its culture, challenges and what stage of its lifecycle it is in.
Agency, in-house or interim?
Hiring an interim who has both agency and in-house experience can be a real benefit for the organisation. For example, whilst not mutually exclusive, in-house experience brings insight into internal stakeholder relationships, understanding of the impact of culture on communications and knowledge of how communications fits within the wider business. On the other hand, agency experience brings insight into many different industry sectors, corporate scenarios and business structures as well as an understanding of how to use agency resource to best effect. Therefore, given an interim’s role is often about implementing best practice, having both buy and sell-side knowledge of the communications world can be very helpful.
While situational experience is often more important than specific sector experience (the best interims are by nature fast learners), it is important that interims are continuing to evolve their knowledge and experience in line with the communications market in general, whether that is using new technology to deliver digital communications or trends affecting the profession. For interims working agency-side (albeit this is quite unusual) it can be quite easy to keep up to date with what’s new and ‘hot’ as they are surrounded by fellow communication professionals. For in-house interims, it can be more challenging when they may be working in “isolation”, so it is definitely incumbent on them to make an effort to attend industry and networking events, and use social and digital channels to keep up to speed with the latest trends.
Looking to the future, the reality is that next March is a date on most organisation's horizons with many citing “market uncertainty" as a factor likely to impact investment, including in communication. However, Brexit does present opportunities for interims. Not only the communication challenges Brexit in itself presents – many of which will be based around change - but also for an organisation considering whether and how to invest in communications during this period, using an interim could provide an ideal solution. There is a specific challenge to address within a certain timeframe, but there may be a hesitancy to bring a full time employee onto the books - ideal ingredients for interim communications professionals.
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