Axios Communicators

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December 15, 2023

✨ I cannot believe this is the last Axios Communicators of this year. We will be off for the holidays, returning on Jan. 4, 2024.

  • Before we go dark, we've got to fill you in on what happened last night.
    • 📚 But first, I jumped on some news earlier this week and unpacked the comms lessons from the recent university congressional hearing. Check it out here.

Today's newsletter is 1,267 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The value of reputation

Photo: Steven Duarte on behalf of Axios

PR isn't what it once was, and the profession should rebrand from "public relations" to "protectors of reputation."

Why it matters: When reputations take a hit, so does the business' ability to attract customers, employees and investors.

  • In fact, up to 25% of a company's market value is based on reputation, according to a World Economic Forum study.

Driving the news: To a packed room of 300 Axios readers, United Airlines' EVP of communications and advertising Josh Earnest, Activision Blizzard's EVP of corporate affairs and chief communications officer Lulu Cheng Meservey and crisis communication expert Molly McPherson hammered home the importance of managing, protecting and enhancing reputation.

What they're saying: "The reality of the world that we're operating in is that everything has a reputational component," said Earnest.

  • "It's hard to think of a decision that isn't going to influence the way that people think about you. In some cases it may just be your employees or it may just be your most loyal customers who are going to do business with you anyway. But there's always [an] upside to making decisions in a way that gives you an opportunity to engage and reinforce relationships with your key audiences."

That's why corporate boards need to have someone at the table who understands reputation and communication interests, said Cheng Meservey.

  • "Your job as a board is governance. It's accountability. It's strategic planning. You literally can't do those things if you can't communicate that to people. You can't operate with transparency or build trust if you don't have an instinct for how to communicate."

And internal audiences should be priority No. 1.

  • Because "an external crisis is inconvenient and internal crisis is existential," said Cheng Meservey.

Yes, but: Outside, uncontrollable factors — typically looming on social media— can directly impact reputation.

  • "It's terrifying for communicators and even more terrifying for leaders, without a doubt, because your reputation is now at the mercy of not just people — sometimes anonymous people — but also at the mercy of the algorithm," said McPherson.

To maintain trust and work to rebuild reputational damage, you have to monitor these channels while also actively engaging with hyper-targeted, influential audiences, said Cheng Meservey.

  • "I don't care about the public as a communicator. Who is the public? You might have a very wide range of people you care about like United Airlines does — everybody flies — or you might have a very narrow range, but you have to know who those people are. It can't just be this nebulous concept of humanity. How do you speak to that?"

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2. What they're saying

Credit: Axios

Last night after our event, we gathered two dozen senior communications and corporate affairs professionals for dinner across the street where my Axios colleague Hope King set a pretty good ground rule for the discussion: Let's not talk about AI!

  • So we didn't, and it turned into a conversation about how to actually do the job of comms during this volatile and politically charged moment in time.

Why it mattered: It can feel like so much work if communications is overtaken by responding to the latest outrage or chasing down some hot takes on how AI is going to upend everything.

  • Spending an hour or two connecting about the basics was a welcome reprieve.

Here's what we heard:

  • Employees are the focus.
    • "We are making employees that most important audience, and viewing press, social and advertising as opportunities for surround sound, … [it's about] merchandising good news stories and social content and pushing it under the noses of our employees," said Steven Restivo, VP, global communications at United Airlines.
    • "If you're really an inside-out organization and tell your stories internally best first, then hiring journalists and turning them loose as reporters inside a company is actually a great way to find human, tangible, granular stories of what your people are doing. You're then able to open that flower up to the world and say, 'See that?' And there's trust building and understanding that comes with it," said BCW CEO Corey duBrowa.
  • Tap employees as influencers.
    • "They can be our best ambassador. They can also be our biggest detractor if not engaged properly," said Megan DiSciullo, U.S. and Mexico communications leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
    • "It also help with retention and recruiting — especially Gen Z," said Deidrea Miller, SVP and head of communications for Christie's Americas. "They don't want to just hear from a recruiter. They want to see the day in the life on the job with someone who looks like them."
  • Everything communicates, and visuals are just as important as words.
    • "An image translates quickly, is often clicked on more, and younger people tend to visualize the process more," said Archewell senior advisor Christine Schirmer. "Sometimes I have a little bit of regret for how many times I have wordsmithed something to death when a picture would have been a more attractive way to grab attention."
  • Strategic silence is likely to lead the strategy of business leaders and brands in 2024.
    • Yes, but: When companies do engage, communications will be at the center of the decision making.
    • "You can't make a business plan without being able to communicate it. You can't respond to the needs of the society around you or prep for geopolitical challenges without being able to communicate well," said Salesforce head of public affairs Margaret Taylor.

3. 📸 1,000 words

Photo of attendees at the Axios Communicators event.

Axios publisher Nicholas Johnston speaks to Chris Perry, chairman of futures at Weber Shandwick, at the Axios Communicators event in New York on Dec. 14. Photo: Ryan Heath/Axios

A BIG thanks to the hundreds of you who chose to close out the year with us at the Axios Communicators event in New York.

4. Blackstone's holiday humor

Blackstone president and chief operating officer Jon Gray performing in the company's holiday video. Photo: Courtesy of Blackstone

The financial sector is not known for its creativity, humor and lighthearted corporate culture.

  • Yes, but: Asset management firm Blackstone sought to change that in its newly released holiday video.

Why it matters: The spoof, which has more than 100,000 views on YouTube, shows how a little levity and a lot of strategic messaging can go a long way.

What they're saying: "The initial goal was to create something fun for employees and highlight our culture, and it's kind of taken on a life of its own," says Blackstone's global head of corporate affairs Christine Anderson — who also makes a hilarious cameo in the video.

  • It's now released publicly to investors, financial advisers, portfolio companies and the media as a way to highlight its annual accomplishments.

State of play: Blackstone has been creating these videos since 2018, but this year, at creative direction of president and COO Jon Gray, the team took it up a notch and channeled its inner Taylor Swift.

  • On Blackstone's "Alternative Eras Tour," you can catch dancing analysts and CEO Stephen Schwarzman decked out in sequins alongside strategically placed nods to Blackstone's portfolio companies and record-breaking $1 trillion in assets.

Zoom in: The project, which typically begins during the summer, was handled by Blackstone's in-house video production team, led by Jay Gillespie.

  • Of note, Blackstone isn't the only firm to attempt to spread holiday cheer. Apollo also joined in on the … err … fun.

The bottom line: "It's just humanizing to see your leaders making fun of themselves and share a few laughs with the team. Finance sometimes has a more serious exterior, and so I think showing external audiences that we're human and can laugh at ourselves is a good thing," said Anderson.

🍿 Go deeper: Watch the video

5. 1 quote to-go

Photo: Steven Duarte on behalf of Axios

"If you look at brands that sometimes get in trouble, it's because they were making decisions without having an eye toward the reputational aspects of the decision."

Josh Earnest, United Airlines EVP, communications and advertising, tells Axios' Hope King

🎁 That's a wrap! Thanks to you and editors Nicholas Johnston and Nicole Ortiz for another great year.

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