Saira Zaki and Michael R. CrittendenSaira Zaki and Michael R. Crittenden co-authored this article.

Corporate leaders today are tested for their ability to successfully wield one of the most misunderstood soft powers in the C-suite arsenal: strategic communications.

Seismic external challenges, from inflationary pressures and fears of a global recession to geopolitical strife and battered supply chains, sit side by side with ever-present internal hurdles, including the fight for talent, reputational risk and fickle and demanding stakeholders. How leaders communicate their business stories and respond to headwinds has never been more important to achieving an organization’s goals.

Tackling the current moment demands global leaders properly prioritize, assess and invest in their organization’s communications function and plan for time-sensitive and critical issues.

This is imperative to ensure the proper calibration and protection of the organization’s brand as well as prepare organizations when inflection points happen and prevent minor setbacks from becoming full-blown tempests that threaten business continuity. Within financial services and legal, for example, there’s a critical need to move away from neutrality in marketing and communications and instead put strategic emphasis on the latter expertise.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR Magazine
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As communications continue to evolve in complexity, so does the expectation from stakeholders that an organization’s corporate communications will match that sophistication and depth. From investor relations to regulatory engagement and internal employee communications, these core audiences have an ever-growing appetite to engage and understand management’s perspective and its approach to the assessment and remediation of risk. This is only heightened in times of macroeconomic dislocation.

With communications reaching stakeholders instantaneously around the globe, siloed or area-specific communications may no longer be the best avenue to achieving enterprise goals. A unified communications strategy with sensitive thought to international interpretation and engagement is best when assessing big picture challenges. As part of this approach, companies need to conduct a holistic, cross-border assessment of relevant needs and challenges, particularly for publicly traded companies and firms with a global presence. Cross-border thinking also takes on added importance for issues management; big crises will almost always impact organizations on a global level creating both internal and external challenges which require an aggressive response. Add to that international enforcement, bilateral engagement and equivalency whether in the fight against money laundering or the future regulation of crypto assets, and all require cross-border foresight and unified cross-border thinking.

Leaders must also assess whether their organizational infrastructure is designed to best serve them in times of stress. In a true enterprise-wide crisis, the core team required to deliver at the very highest level of scrutiny is trinary: the executive, legal and crisis communications functions. To avoid leaving organizations exposed and ill-equipped, it’s imperative that organizations ensure that their internal and external communications have the appropriate skills and expertise needed to engage hyper-aware audiences, including shareholders, policymakers, media and employees. Delineating clear lines of responsibility, creating a hardened issue-response infrastructure and establishing secure protocols to allow agile assessment and reaction to incoming challenges will all benefit the organization when enterprise-critical events occur.

As leaders determine their readiness and undergo these assessments, the emphasis needs to be on reaching the goal of an intentional and holistic communications strategy:

  • CEO-led communications are ideally not delegated to tertiary executive levels. Otherwise, transmissions lack potency and authenticity in advocating values and promoting the brand.
  • Assess, source and invest in the appropriate skillset to tackle the myriad communications channels and deliberations whether digital, generational, internal or external. Identify the talent mix your team needs and invest before you need to, whether it’s in qualified writers, savvy media-facing spokespeople or a legal support team. There is tremendous added value in having outside advisors integrated before a time-sensitive issue arises.
  • Build communications teams that are nimble, agile and high quality. Advisors can work in partnership with other external vendors or in-house teams to deal with conflict and bolt on highly specialized or complementary advice as appropriate.
  • Put an internal priority on harnessing voices from across the enterprise to institutionalize efforts across business units and employee groups so your organization orients towards shared strategic goals. A company’s workforce can serve as an invaluable ambassador.
  • Bring in the experts: Prepare incident response plans and worst-case scenarios for when an enterprise-critical event hits because it will.

Whether and how influential and respected a business can remain in the face of these significant challenges depends on the success or failure of this strategic approach. Successful management of an enterprise-wide crisis, even though difficult and tough decisions, can solidify a brand and its leadership, creating a long-lasting sense of trust, whether it be with investors, employees or the broader public. Failure instead can be an imperceptive death; a slow bleed of investors, clients and talent. Behind every urgent media frenzy lies a crucial inflection point for the organization subjected to negative headlines—headlines that act like deadly poison shared with the market over and over by the most brutal of competitors at the most opportune times.

While not a new challenge, the broad-based acceptance of a strong communications function has been a topic of heated debate across corporate America for decades. But for organizations taking that important evolutionary step to own their communications, the moment is now.


Saira Zaki is Senior Managing Director, London, at The Levinson Group. Mike Crittenden is Senior Managing Director, D.C., at The Levinson Group.