Anna Whitlam People recently hosted a virtual discussion with Alex Cole, the outgoing global Chief Brand and Corporate Affairs Officer at Bupa in the UK.
Bupa is a global health company employing 83,000 people with key businesses in Australia, the UK, Spain, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, the US, Mexico, India, Turkey, Poland and Hong Kong.
Alex kindly joined us from London to lead a very insightful discussion on why corporations need more than communications.
The context for business is evolving rapidly and corporate affairs leaders continue to play a key role in supporting how a corporation embraces change and adapts.
Alex shared her definition of Corporate Affairs, and the importance of the “corporate affairian” mindset, total company ownership, and stewardship of reputation brand, and sustainability.
She spoke about the increasing challenge of earning trust and protecting reputation. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world”. While the Barometer showed again that trust and reputation and is declining, business remains the most trusted institution, ahead of NGO’s, government and media.
We are therefore, as Alex points out, seeing an exponential rise in the expectations of CEO’s to lead on societal issues. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents expect CEOs to publicly speak out on social challenges, including the pandemic impact, job automation, societal issues and local community issues. Further, nearly 70 per cent agree CEOs should step in when government does not fix societal problems.
Corporate affairs leaders, according to Alex, have a critical role to play in not just the delivery of communications, but in identifying and understanding issues and developing a position. They must act as a credible business partner with – and within – executive teams, rather than as a service delivery function or what she describes as the “communications post box”. This includes being involved from the inception of a strategy and in the constructive decision making around its implementation.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow”
Alex spoke to the increased scrutiny corporations face, with an emphasis on character-based drivers of reputation.
In order to support our leaders in taking an informed position on issues, Alex says we not only need to understand the drivers of reputation, but the characterisation of our own organisation. Defining character and reputation, according to Alex, demands a 360 degree view. “If you’ve got the right tree, it’s much easier to get the right shadow,” she says. A leader with a 360 degree mindset brings the full Corporate Affairs picture into play, considering all aspects and stakeholders.
Alex also insists that as a corporate affairs leader, you must have the levers of more than just communications in your control, and importantly, you must embed collaboration and two way thinking within your own function. This two way thinking is incredibly important to a Function’s maturity, influence and impact.
Corporate affairs leaders must also be “Glocal”. Social media has broken down geographic barriers with information crossing countries and reputation becoming more global. At the same time, the world is hyper-local and personalised. For global corporations, each country of operation has specific regulations, stakeholder expectations and culture to be embraced and respected. Corporate affairs must be able to balance a corporation’s global story, with responding to local and individual circumstances.
Alex also spoke to the importance of winning with and through people. Corporate affairs leaders must recognise the need to support individuals to understand how their work makes an impact and has purpose.
Alex shared some of the other key attributes and expertise that Bupa defines as a successful “Corporate Affairian”:
Customer-first mindset – Sees customers as the primary measure of success, and ensures others do too. They consider things through the lens of current and future customers.
Engagement mastery – Demonstrates sophisticated influence, bringing people with you – both internally and externally.
Resilient risk radar – Resilient and positive in adversity, managing both your own and organisational energy.
With over 25 years’ experience in Health, Retail, FMCG and Financial Services, Alex Cole began her career in UK politics, working for the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP and on Tony Blair’s 1997 General Election campaign. She co-founded a consultancy before spending 10 years at Cadbury where she established the Corporate Affairs function, led the move to Fairtrade, and was Marketing and Innovation Director. She went on to be Managing Director of Freud Communications before joining the UK retailer, Sainsbury’s, in 2011 as Director of Corporate Affairs activating their sponsorship of the London Paralympic Games. Alex first joined Bupa in 2014 as Chief Customer and Corporate Affairs Officer, accountable for customer experience, brand, marketing, corporate communications and ESG. She is Chair of the Bupa Foundation, which promotes mental wellbeing and resilience, sustainability and social inclusion.