The art of efficiently communicating that message — via corporate communicators, investor relations, marketing, PR and public affairs — is an imperative strategy. Empirical evidence from Fortune 100 brands and the country’s leading business schools has linked the impact of these functions on company revenues, valuation and the company’s ability to weather crises.
Managing the public face of a company is a big endeavor, but even more so for those working for GovCon firms that are under constant scrutiny by media, blogosphere, shareholders, Congress and taxpayers.
One aspect of successful corporate communications has to do with anticipating the unexpected, the communications experts who spoke to GovConExec agreed.
“If marketers are not anticipating the trends and understanding the direction government customers are headed, they will inherently be a step behind,” said Suzanne Behrens, general manager at Microsoft’s U.S. public sector marketing. “We pay careful attention to many of our government analyst partners, as well as our customers, to ensure we are always mapping to their missions.”
Leading communicators know the importance of being prepared — and maintaining a strategic focus.
“We can’t afford to take a scatter-shot approach to our communications,” stressed Mike Dolton, director of corporate communications at AMERICAN SYSTEMS. “We key in on our company’s strategic plan objectives, not just for 2011, but for the next few years, and we hone our message and target our communications accordingly.”
Communicators have always sought to stand out in a crowd, but with shrinking budgets and an increasingly competitive market space, the strategies for doing so are more important than ever. For Global Defense Technology & Systems, Inc, focusing on delivering unique or customized technology has helped give the firm the upper hand on the market, said Andrew Bryden, GTEC’s director of marketing.
“Being a mid-sized company is also an advantage,” he noted. “We can remain agile and responsive to our customer missions or surge requirements, and this is firmly built into our company ethos.”
Sheila S. Blackwell, vice president of communications and public affairs at SRA International, Inc., summed her line of attack in two words: honesty and service.
“Since SRA’s founding, in addition to being a business success, the company has built a reputation for meeting commitments, giving back to the communities where we live and work, and reinforcing a culture where the mission of our customers is the mission and passion of SRA employees,” she said.
Eileen Cassidy Rivera, vice president of communications and investor relations at Vangent, Inc., had a slightly different approach to standing out: have an awesome story to tell.
“In my opinion, the company that tells the best story about their product or service and clearly communicates how their product or service changes their customers’ lives for the better will ultimately be successful,” she said.
However, for government contractors, standing out in a good way can be difficult. Often, the services they provide are not considered “life changing,” but they rather fulfill the mission of the customer who typically is a federal agency or program.
Ultimately, it comes down to who can do it better, cheaper and faster with the most technically acceptable solution, Rivera said.
And, for GovCon communicators, measuring success requires a slightly different metric. Dolton, for example, said the biggest measure of success is winning new business.
“We’ve had back-to-back years of solid new business growth and record revenues, and while that can’t be attributed solely to our marketing efforts, we know that it plays a vital role in our success,” he said. “Secondarily, I believe our messaging, both inside and outside of AMERICAN SYSTEMS, reinforces our brand and our values, and that leads to better retention and recruiting.”
At Microsoft, the communications department has implemented monthly scorecards to assess the performance of marketing activities against a set of key performance indicators and defined metrics.
“Our marketing efforts are tightly aligned to our sales efforts in the government space, so our monthly scorecard carefully analyzes and examines the impact we are having on the sales pipeline,” Behrens said, adding she and her colleagues also monitor their impact through digital properties, public relations and social marketing.
Rivera, a self-proclaimed “data freak,” said she believes the fields of communications, marketing and investor relations require creative approaches to determine which data and metrics are the best indicators of effectiveness.
“It’s really up to us as communicators to define and determine what data and metrics make the most sense — every company is different — and back to my one of my favorite phrases, ‘one size does not fit all,’” she said.
Communicators have to carefully select what data points are the most relevant for measuring the impact of what they are doing, whether it is the number of news articles published on a given topic, or the number of Twitter followers, she surmised.
“Ultimately, we must make the correlation between the work we do as communicators and how it’s improving the value of the business,” Rivera said. “It comes down to dollars and cents, and the most successful communicator can demonstrate how their role improves the top and bottom line and drives value for the business.”
The digital era — defined by evolving technology, the 24-hour news cycle and pervasive social media — added a new dimension to the communicators’ role and tested their ability to manage the message across a multitude of media channels. Today’s communicators need to be more available, flexible, ready and prepared to respond to events and crises more efficiently than ever before, Bryden said, adding that GTEC has embraced social media tools to boost existing communications campaigns and recruitment programs.
Blackwell said there is a constant challenge to marry up the traditional modes of communications Generation X or Baby Boomers are used to, with the newer methods popular with the Millennial Generation.
“It’s an evolving dynamic — while it’s progressive, it sometimes removes the personal side of interaction,” she explained. “We have and will continue to explore the many modes of social media — testing what works and what doesn’t — keeping in mind that SRA has a significant number of employees embedded at customer locations.”
Behrens stressed the importance of maintaining a top-notch digital marketing presence in communities where her firm’s customers spend their time online, engaging these communities in meaningful conversations, and exerting thought leadership through online media — in addition to the conventional “offline” tools Microsoft marketers are expected to maintain.
When planning their yearly communications strategy, the communicators who spoke to GovConExec emphasized understanding not only what their customers want, but where the market is heading and the role employees play.
Bryden, for example, starts each year by defining what he and his colleagues want the firm to be known for by the yearend, while working to understand their customers and market challenges. Bryden’s team then develops corresponding corporate and segment messages and decides how to best communicate these to targeted media, customers and shareholders.
“Getting messages out to our employees is always a challenge for GTEC, as many sit at customer locations across the United States and overseas,” he said. “Finding new and engaging ways to communicate with our team and creating a common culture remains a key consideration when developing our employee communications plans.”
Rivera said Vangent this year has taken a new direction in how it markets and communicates what it does, something she called “Changing the Conversation from Offerings to Outcomes.” The goal is to provide Vangent employees, business developers, recruiters and managers with a new messaging platform that helps them more easily tell a story about the outcomes the firm has helped accomplish for its customers.
Ultimately, determining whether Rivera and her team have been successful depends on whether they can show they are effectively contributing to the company meeting its business goals, as well as helping employees understand the important role they play in the firm’s success.
“In many ways, we’re the glue that binds together the parts of the company that must come together to communicate and work together effectively to achieve success,” she concluded. ♦