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Ever wondered why some corporate affairs leaders command the respect of the executive team and board, while others don’t?

At some point, most corporate affairs leaders are frustrated with their level of influence, impact or authority at the most senior ranks of their organisation and many have questioned why so few corporate affairs leaders are members of their company’s executive team. But there have been many success stories; corporate affairs leaders operating as credible, authoritative, levers of change that have become vital members of the executive team and trusted advisors to their CEO and board.

It’s time to shine a light on this pathway, to equip more corporate affairs leaders with the tools to step-up and increase their impact. To graduate from the ‘reactive’ model, and inform, compel and mobilise their company to make changes that strategically address its reputational risks.

While completing over 50 major reputation and stakeholder research studies for large entities, I have witnessed corporate affairs leaders use evidence to increase their authority. Four lessons for corporate affairs leaders stand out.


1. The 'reactive' approach to corporate affairs undermines your credibility

Many corporate affairs leaders have themselves to blame. Much of their working week is spent reacting to the latest issue or event, working tirelessly to put out fires, when the gold standard of performance is 'taking a strategic approach to identifying and addressing major reputational risks'. While they may be convinced their constant hosing-down of issues demonstrates a tireless commitment, executive team members see a lack of strategic management skill.

Imagine an Operations Director with poor safety or quality performance, a CFO with unreliable reporting accuracy or a CIO with constantly failing systems. Each quickly loses the confidence of their executive peers. The fire hose you wield from crisis to crisis is a constant reminder that you are preoccupied with events and issues, when the executive team actually wants a corporate affairs leader focused on strategically addressing the major reputation risks.


2. Without evidence, your views about reputation are just an opinion

Authoritative corporate affairs leaders bring well-evidenced insights about the organisation’s reputation to the executive team, they are better informed about the perceptions of key stakeholders than anyone else, company wide. The facts they bring to the executive table will be the informed perspectives of key stakeholders, this evidence is the source of their authority.

“If all you bring is an opinion about our reputation, the executive team already has plenty of those. Bring the facts.” CEO

Companies that are genuinely concerned with their reputation eagerly seek to discover their reputational risks. The best companies don’t wait to have their reputational risks exposed by Four Corners or Royal commissions, they use independent research specialists to identify how they are falling short of stakeholder expectations, by going straight to the source. These researchers conduct confidential in-depth interviews with the company's key stakeholders, senior individuals who; deal with them, supply them, live with them, clean up after them, regulate them, finance them, collaborate with them, compete against them and work for them. These key stakeholders see the company's behavior from very close range, observe their priorities when under pressure and witness their decision-making, well aware of changes in their environment and leadership.

The perceptions of key stakeholders are analysed and summarised by the independent researcher to become key findings. When the corporate affairs leader brings these powerful perspectives as evidence and facts to the executive team, they bring authority.


3. The evidence must compel executives to make change

When presenting the key findings from key stakeholder interviews to executive teams and boards, most find the feedback confronting. They understandably want to test the methodology or question some of the perspectives, but this is an important stage in securing senior buy-in to the need for change.

Once the facts are confirmed, the corporate affairs leader has provided the executive team with a clear picture of the organisation’s reputation and reputational risks, they must now collaborate to construct a pathway forward. High quality stakeholder research will have generated solutions during the initial interviews with key stakeholders, meaning that the pathways the corporate affairs leader proposes to the executive team, carry the endorsement of key stakeholders.

The corporate affairs leader then partners with executives to develop agreed solutions and broader commitment to change. Motivated by the adverse consequences of ignoring the reputational risks, and informed by clearly articulated key stakeholder expectations, this partnering builds strong working relationships with other executives, set on a foundation of evidence.


4. Your value proposition? Bring the outside perspective in

Every executive team member must bring a value proposition to that forum and the aspiring corporate affairs manager is no exception. Put simply their unique value proposition is 'to bring the outside perspective into the organisation'. They, more than anyone else in the organisation, regularly, accurately, reliably and often forcefully represent the perceptions and expectations of stakeholders to company leaders. In both the executive and board meetings the corporate affairs leader is the voice of the outside key stakeholders - as if they were in the room themselves. Always listening to ensure the decisions made recognise the expectations of key stakeholders.

“The real value add that can make the function more strategic and more impactful is to bring outside insights into the organisation, with insight driven solutions and ideas.” Corporate Affairs Leader


Step-up and increase your impact

There are a growing number of corporate affairs leaders taking a strategic approach to their role. Leaders who once directed a fire hose at issues instead now use evidence to identify reputational risks. By progressively addressing these risks, they are reducing the issues or events that would drag them back into the reactive role they once played.

These corporate affairs leaders assemble such compelling evidence about their company’s reputational risks, that other executives listen, believe and contribute to plans to address them. These corporate affairs leaders no longer bring fire hoses - they bring insightful, often confronting facts.


David Armstrong is Director of Reputation Research Pty Ltd, a specialist reputation and stakeholder research practice which brings the experience of over 50 major reputation studies, involving 1500 in-depth interviews with key stakeholders including over 300 CEOs. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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