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Misjudged public comments from senior managers can cause mayhem, but good communication skills are not just about avoiding bad publicity – they can also boost profits

This article was first published in the October 2013 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.


When a senior company figure blunders in communicating through the media, the corporate and career costs can be high, but getting it right can drive sales and profits.

Examples in the debit column are rife. Gene Morphis, the CFO of Nasdaq-listed US womenswear chain Francesca’s Holding Corp was fired in May 2012 after his tweet on social media site Twitter inadvertently disclosed sensitive share price information from a board meeting.

PR gaffes made by Tony Hayward, the then CEO of oil major BP during the Macondo oil rig fatalities and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, caused a political furore in the US. The company has so far paid damages of more than US$40bn.

If eliminating negative press is one reason to acquire good media skills, accentuating the positive is equally valuable.

‘Studies suggest 60% of the value of a company is goodwill and that 66% of people have a better image of a company with an engaging CEO,’ says Roland Main, co-founder and director of Second City Creative, a Glasgow, Scotland company behind Second City Media eAcademy, an innovative web technology delivering media training online and internationally for blue-chip clients including EY, PwC and KPMG and leading banks.

Companies great and small are becoming more aware of the need to improve the communication skills of senior employees. ‘Some of the smallest firms are now on free social media such as Facebook and Twitter, so everyone knows how important the media are,’ says Main.

While large companies are the Media eAcademy’s main customers, it is seeing growing demand from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and smaller professional firms and recently began a web affiliates programme to reach out to these.

Main says: ‘Accountancy is a profession driven by examination, finding “the right answer”, and by process, but handling the media is more art than science. Many people who’ve been through accountancy training start off trying to give the right answer, whereas there is only a good answer.’

He continues: ‘Typically, accountants are a little wary to start. Once they understand the rules of engagement, they really get into it, their natural fluency and ability to think on their feet clicks in, and they generally perform pretty well.’

For poor communicators, there are few hiding places in a 24-hour connected world. The worldwide web has brought greater reach and depth to media monitoring and analysis.

A survey in 2012 of 116 European PR companies by France-based media monitoring agency Press Index,  now majority-owned by the Kantar Media business of global marketing communications giant WPP, found monitoring was conducted most frequently through Google, the online search giant, followed in order by specialist media monitoring services, social media sites Twitter and Facebook, and finally Pickanews, Press Index’s European multimedia search engine.

Assault by analytics

The vast volume of information generated from these and other online sources has driven development of sophisticated analytics widely used by PR specialists.

Web search and software analytics tools help to measure the effectiveness of campaigns, to benchmark companies against other firms, to dissect positive and negative responses, and to provide hard figures on how PR affects the bottom line.

It also throws into sharp focus the impact of spokespeople. ‘Industry and competitive benchmarking is an incredible tool to put spokesperson effectiveness into context,’ says Kristin Wadge, head of analytics and insight at Gorkana Group, a UK and US-based company providing interfaces between the public relations, corporate communications and media industries. ‘First, it’s important to understand the frequency each spokesperson is used over time and compare this to others within the company or industry.

‘Next, you need to know if each spokesperson is delivering messages effectively and ensure any findings are fed back into the training programme. You can discover which media prefer working with which spokespeople, where and when they use them, and identify opportunities to increase penetration.’

Aside from the intelligence gleaned from such analysis, demonstrating how others are working with the media often inspires increased engagement and an element of competition among spokespeople, she adds. ‘The media will always prefer some personalities, but good analysis, feedback and training can develop any spokesperson’s ability and popularity.’

Not that the spokesperson should then be given free rein. Turning a business strategy into a communication strategy is the key to making the latter work for the company’s sales, profits or other goals, according to Phil Morgan, policy and communications director at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Morgan says this simple but critical consideration is the most requested theme by delegates ahead of The Public Relations Show 2013 to be held in London in November by the CIPR. ‘It’s the key skill in communications, particularly at management level.’

All too often, media skills are an afterthought. Main’s company has offered training for a decade, during which it has found itself asked increasingly to provide services at short notice, maybe because a key company person was making a television appearance: ‘Traditional media training has focused on appearances in the media such as radio and television. There’s a bit more time to prepare for commenting to the print media,’ says CIPR’s Morgan. ‘Now though, it’s a 24-hour media cycle including social media so you need to be absolutely certain that your communications team can manage all of these aspects and that involves a diverse set of skills for everyone involved.’

More than just media skills

Communicating well is not just about media training, says Main. ‘Whether you are delivering a presentation, speaking at a meeting or podcasting, communicating is important. The Big Four spend a lot of time putting all their high fliers through media training because they understand that these are life skills that anyone wishing to get on as a business leader has to have.’

Keeping up to date with communication skills is also important, says Main, citing one reason for Second City Creative establishing online media training that would allow companies to train people well 24/7 wherever they are in the world and whenever they need.

‘Previously, people would do media training maybe every couple of years. Using internet technology lets people refresh skills and keep them relevant to their own and the company’s needs.’ 

There is another personal reason for acquiring media skills. It is starting to appear in staff assessments. ‘We have been asked to bring it into annual staff appraisals,’ says Main. ‘We have our own tests and examinations that can be used to rate spokespeople and the natural extension of that will be into certification. This is the first qualification of its kind and we believe it will become a sought-after gold standard in the next 18 months.’

While developing standards is important, companies also look for some customisation of media training: ‘In our case that can mean translating the site into the main business languages, adding sector- or company-specific modules, and including social media training tools, ask-the-expert forums, webinars and so on,’ says Main.

Robert Stokes, journalist





Last updated: 10 Dec 2014