2024…Are you ready for it?

And with that, the 2023 season comes to an end From market trends to major headlines, there are so many takeaways from the world of communications and our industry. Here at Patino, we’re looking back at 2023 and the lessons we’ve learned to inform how we’ll prepare for 2024.  It’s going to be interesting and exciting to say the least.

The Executive Formerly Known as Communications

In 2023 

Across all of our clients and within every industry, the remit and stakeholder accountability for a communications leader expands year over year, and 2023 was no exception. From government affairs and ESG to crisis and employee communications, the portfolio keeps growing, and in most organizations, the concept of an executive purely focusing on PR, internal and external communications is waning. Enter: Corporate Affairs. Although the concept of Corporate Affairs has been around in European organizations for quite some time, this year, U.S. headquartered companies like Target, GoFundMe, BlackRock, Papa John’s and McDonald’s have created and filled new Corporate Affairs roles and structures. 

Here’s what we learned: Smart and savvy CEOs have long understood the power and importance of communications leaders. In the last several years, we have had more CEOs (and boards) seek a CCO who truly understands the 360-degree view of stakeholder communications. The transition from pure communications to a corporate affairs leadership title indicates the further evolution with structures aligned and responsibilities codified. A corporate affairs practice has long been the preferred structure in European companies, and requires understanding the priorities of numerous stakeholders, orchestrating and aligning various messaging and measuring impact and influence on the health and wellbeing of an organization.

Beyond the functional responsibilities, the corporate affairs leader must serve as an essential advisor to the CEO. The CEO needs this executive to understand the factors that influence an organization’s reputation, the company’s position in legislative and regulatory policy and the impact of the corporate affairs strategy on the health and wellbeing of the business overall. Corporate affairs leadership has the vantage point of seeing an organization’s influence and impact in real time and advising the CEO accordingly. However, the number of experienced Corporate Affairs professionals that have managed both communications and government/ public affairs teams is still relatively small. The demand for the role in the coming year may outpace the number of qualified candidates in the market.

How to prepare for 2024: The number of U.S. companies adopting a Corporate Affairs leadership structure expanded significantly in 2023 and will continue to do so over the next five years. The time to plan for a corporate affairs structure is now. Understanding how to evolve the function from traditional communications to a business-minded and purpose driven philosophy is essential. The first step in preparing for this evolution is understanding and defining the functions you need in your environment. Secondly, it is determining the experiences and competencies for this unified function. This evolution will require leaders to step outside of traditional expectations, and unfortunately, communicators who cannot tie their work to business value might be left behind. This is an opportunity to be a business driver, adopt a strategic framework and understand how to communicate the impact of your work and how it delivers on business goals.

Oops…I said it again.

In 2023

This year, some of the most iconic brands had the biggest reputational crises, alienating their customer bases as they got caught up in a cultural crossroads. Between weakened messaging, ineffective crisis management, and loss of consumer trust, we saw gaffs from brands like Bud Light and Target lead to impacted revenue and shareholder lawsuits. Needless to say it was a rough ride for companies who were less than prepared to properly discuss social issues. 

Here’s what we learned: The polarization of political and social issues by business stakeholders will continue. Having the right team in place is essential for weathering what’s next (see: our perspective on corporate affairs above). The divisive landscape in the U.S. will amplify any potential missteps, expose reputational risks and lead to public and internal mistrust. Certain consumers expect the brands they care about to demonstrate their values and many employees expect their employer to do the same. This means even more alignment across an organization’s internal communications, crisis, investor relations, public affairs, and ESG messaging and strategy. 

How to prepare for 2024: It’s an election year, which promises more potential scrutiny from customers, employees and leadership. In order to prepare for this moment, communications leaders must be able to rely on the diverse viewpoints of their team. Building a truly diverse team, with a range of perspectives and lived experiences is the first step. Leaders should be comfortable encouraging, moderating, and defusing potentially polarizing conversations within their own team. Building an engaged team with diverse perspectives takes leaders who understand its importance and who are committed to diversity beyond tokenism focused on fulfilling targets. Patino Associates remains committed to diverse and equitable hiring practices through its inclusive recruitment strategies. It is our responsibility to bring talent with a range of lived experiences into the recruitment process and to uphold and advance leadership in this space. 

AI is Everywhere

In 2023

Unless you were living on Mars, you were inundated with the leaps and bounds that artificial intelligence made this year. AI has become perhaps the most feared and revered technology of our lifetime, and we are slowly realizing its potential in our work.

Here’s what we learned: ChatGPT and other large language learning models are changing the future of our work. Our conversations with the market have revealed a number of communications teams already leveraging its potential. From integrating more sophisticated chatbots into the customer experience to utilizing Generative AI to produce first drafts of content (not this piece!) or using AI for employee sentiment analysis, the potential for AI-communications integration is seemingly endless. But how prepared are you and your team for another digital transformation?

How to prepare for 2024: From a talent perspective, this is a rapidly evolving environment. The AI “experts” in communications have been doing this for weeks and months, not years. Our friends and clients are asking us how to find this next generation of talent. It starts by identifying the risk takers and “tinkerers” on your team. Most, but not all, may be those with fewer years of experience. Encourage them to play – to think about the use cases and the prompts needed to ensure that the result from AI is both accurate and aligned with the intent of the prompt. 

It is essential to understand how and where to integrate AI with your communications strategy. From our conversations, companies are using AI tools to:

  • automate tasks and where human input is still required. 
  • optimize intelligence and analytics framework with AI. 
  • improve market research to make informed decisions about messaging or consumer sentiment. 

The possibilities are quite endless, but without the right foundational and integrative strategy, it can become a whole lot of tactical initiatives without a true direction.

Finally, in 2024 it will be essential to consider how to prepare early career talent in new and different ways. It is likely that a number of entry level positions will change and potentially be eliminated as AI becomes more sophisticated. Companies will be in the unique position of building a generation of workers who will use AI at the onset of their careers, and preparing for the evolution of these communications roles will be key indicators for success. In 2024, we expect that clients will want to work with us to redefine an entry level position in communications and its relationship with AI. 

The Power of Employees

In 2023

This was the year of an evolving power dynamic between leaders and their employees. Employees were more vocal about their disinterest in returning to the office and quiet quitting continued to trend. This year there were many highly publicized labor strikes. Over 90% of the 770 employees at OpenAI threatened to leave over its leader’s ouster. Anecdotally, we’ve seen an increase in agency professionals who are refusing to work with clients whose business doesn’t align with their values. 

What we learned: Employees’ expectations for their leadership remain high. It is imperative that organizations and leaders communicate directly with their employees. We’ve seen an increased demand for transparency, and its potential impact on employee engagement. People want to know the decisions that might impact their work and the rationale for those decisions. It is not enough for leaders to operate with a top down approach, and even more detrimental to stay silent. Effective leadership and direct employee communication is essential to success.

How to prepare for 2024: For executives, people management can feel like an entirely new skill these days. Long gone are the days of purely hierarchical decision-making. It is important for communications leaders to understand how to keep their team engaged without creating a decision-making environment driven by unanimous consensus. At Patino Associates, we’ve experienced the increased demand for collaborative leaders who can engage their diverse team, develop an open and safe culture that encourages ideas and creativity and drive results through accountability in a hybrid environment.

From our vantage point, 2024 is a moment for communications leaders to step into their power and understand what it will take to lead and manage their function. It is up to each leader to assess what will work for their team, from messaging to professional development to building team strategy, and transparency should overlay all of that work. And, more importantly, each leader must assess if they have the right team to carry out the work and contribute to team and organizational growth. Former GE CEO Jack Welch accurately said,“Trust happens when leaders are transparent.”

Intrigued/ worried/excited by what you just read? If you want more perspective on how to prepare for 2024, we can help. Reach out to Michael Patino, Jaimie Cohen  or DJ Moreau for a complimentary 30-minute discussion. 

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