Dan Hunter, Senior Managing Director and Head of Financial Services for the Americas, in the Strategic Communications practice at FTI Consulting, shares how the C-suite can best support their CEO by focusing on risk mitigation and building trust with stakeholders. Dan shares valuable insights on how CEOs should prepare for a thought leadership campaign. Dan also talks about his views on the Metaverse.
DOUG: I’m not going out on a limb to say that every year brings change, but 2023 seems like there’s a lot more uncertainty than usual. So to help us sort of see what’s ahead, we’ve got Dan Hunter. Dan, thanks so much for being with us.
DOUG: What do you see as some of the big changes that might be coming that will affect business in the coming year?
DAN: I tend to think about communications in recent history in a series of phases. I think you had a set phase leading up to the global financial crisis, the financial crisis itself and the changes that happened as a result around that and regulation and economics. And then we had a very benign economic environment where everyone’s taking money like it’s free without consequence for some time. And that’s created so much opportunity, so much investment and so many, you know, an easy environment to succeed in. 2022, last year was the moment where that came to an end with inflation setting in, major policy tightening and all of the consequences that now we’ll have. And this year is where we’re going to see stakeholders realign in this new economic environment.
DOUG: What’s your best advice for communicators to become the best asset they can be for the CEOs they work with?
DAN: CEOs look to the senior communicator, advisor, all the in-house counsel on reputation issues. Reputation issues is owned by the CEO as one of their responsibilities alongside legal credit Northwest Regulatory Risk. It’s our job to make sure they have the right information and they can make the right decisions to ensure that collectively the company is successful and does not crash on the rocks of a negative reputational event as well as them individually, because they themselves personify the company in a way perhaps never seen before. So it’s our job to help them declutter the perception of what they think is around them and focus them on the key risks they need to avoid, challenges they cannot avoid, and what they need to do now to avoid being axed in the six to 9 to 12 months they’re going to crash into if they continue on this path. That’s our role.
DOUG: Yeah, and one piece of that is it sounds like you’re believing that communications is even going to become more valuable. Obviously, the pandemic really just increased the emphasis placed on good communications being critical for the business, both externally and internally. It sounds like you feel that trend is going to continue.
DAN: More so than ever, because aside from all my conversations to CEOs, they don’t know how to navigate this new normal because none of us know what the normal is, but how they navigate all of their stakeholder groups who have often mutually exclusive aims is very challenging for them. If they get it wrong, it can end careers, they get it right, they can be heroes, but they have to be successful and ultimately success and it’s not just down to the bottom line. It’s down to how they perceive you on that journey and that’s why they turn to people like us, the head of comms, in-house, etc., to help them interpret and make those right decisions.
DOUG: Are there any ways you’re approaching trying to have a better percentage chance of getting the predictions right as communicators? Because obviously that’s so important. So are there things you’re doing differently, say, than you did, you know, a while back? Obviously, data plays a role.
DAN: Yeah, data definitely plays a role, particularly on social media, monitoring the conversation on emerging trends, you can certainly see what certain groups are pursuing and also looking at the spend groups and putting behind those campaigns to shift the dialogue particularly, is often a very clear predictor of what’s happening and the tech that we have now to do that is phenominal. We’re using that now in particularly in the US, given what we’re seeing here politically. But I do think it’s actually hasn’t changed that much. Tech helps, but great comms people have always known what stakeholders think beacuse they are talking to them all the time. They’ve always had an intuitive, as well as rational basis, saying if you do that, that is what they’re going to think, that is what they’re going to say, and that there is unknown unknowns. You go and I hope, but the known unknowns, a good communicator gets it right 99 times out of 100.
DOUG: Now you find yourself in meetings quite frequently with CEOs who tend to be pretty strong willed person, have quite the belief in themselves, just on average. So how do you go about actually trying to be successful, influencing them in a meeting? What are some approaches that other communication execs can really try and put into play to have a better chance of convincing them to do the better thing?
DAN: It is an inherent challenge. If the C-suite does not view the head of comms or the comms advisor as integral to the company strategy, it’s very hard to overcome that. The smart C-suite knows that stakeholder perception is fundamental to their individual success, commercial success of the company and regulatory succes, governmental oversight, everything. So if they get it, they’ll listen. If the advice is good. To me it’s quite simple, the CEO is responsible for credit risk, reputational risk, legal risk. It’s one of the risks that they actually own and they have experts in law and reputation to advise that within it. They just have to hold those things in tension. And as long as the communicator is able to articulate what their view is, why they think these things are going to happen, C-suite listens.
DOUG: And thought leadership is seems to be a growing part of the C-suite role. It’s critical. I just saw Edelman put out a report where they’re talking about the value of thought leadership, how it’s becoming increasingly important, especially in the business to business space. What to you makes a successful thought leadership campaign?
DAN: Also, many thought leadership is sharing a thought that changed other people’s thinking. So something that influences the way other people see things and the way they act ultimately. I think in 2023, that’s the hardest thing to get right. I guess this alignment of stakeholders around various things has changed. It’s no longer homogenous. There’s more divergence. And the CEOs that I’m speaking to, deed advice. They don’t quite know what to do. They want to de-risk that thought leadership platforms and turn it more into straightforward commercial execution, b to b issues rather than social issues or biggrand ideas because the consequences of getting that wrong or feeling your way through the unknown is significant.
DOUG: Yeah, it’s interesting that you mentioned derisk, that’s come up a number of times in this conversation. To be truly effective, does the CEO have to do more than derisk but really project forward so they can fully take advantage of the opportunities? And how do you balance that?
DAN: So it depends on the CEO, it depends on the stakeholder response. So if a CEO wants to lean forward and extend their own individual view, that clashes with the views of the corporate or the board or the investors, they will ultimately come unstuck in that situation. So again, there’s no, you can project as long as the stakeholders in which you require their support to be successful will ultimitely go with you. If you don’t, it’s the end of the road. And that’s why lot are less confident that they can push the envelope. They need to sort of let things settle and then they’re going to work out what they’re going to do and how they’re going to go forward with that thought leadership, whatever it may be.
DOUG: One thing we’re seeing is a trend. I’ve been involved in some projects ourselves is doing events within the metaverse. Do you see the metaverse? Is that something that increasingly companies brands are going to become part of, whether it’s for their B2B communications or even B2C?
DAN: Yeah, I do. I think the metaverse has some way to go to make that an effective interaction. The moment is kind of a novelty, but over time, as technology evolves and develops, I would expect to see far more corporate events and communication events happening within the metaverse. I’ve certainly done a few myself and I encourage CEOs to do it. Not everyone is taking my advice on that on that level, because if I have no legs, what do I do? It’s a weird experience, but yeah, over time I think it will definitely increase.
DOUG: Great. Any final thoughts before we wrap up on this interesting conversation? I know there are challenges ahead, but are you confident about 2023 and what are we in for business?
DAN: I actually am quite confident. I mean, particularly for America, I think that there’s not a homogenous view around the world. I think America has navigated these challenges pretty well economically, and this country’s going to get through the challenges this year as well. C-suites are getting the right advice, communication professional and myself, are here to help provide that advice and make those wise decisions. There’s going to be a lot of surprises, without a doubt. We never know how a year truly will unfold, but it’s going to be an interesting one. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
DOUG: It’s no surprise that you provided such terrific insights, especially about the communicators important relationship with the CEO. Thanks so much for being with us.
DAN: My pleasure, Doug.