Say Good-Bye to the Head of Digital


It is no secret that the corporate communications function has been redefined over the past several years. The predominance of connective technologies, particularly those utilizing mobile devices, has given rise to new demands with the preponderance of digital communications channels, including social networks and the digital influencers who hold sway on them.

As this new media landscape was forming, we saw four kinds of companies emerge: those who were eager to implement anything new as quick as possible; those who recognized the ongoing transformation in the industry but implemented change little by little, with caution; those who underestimated the rise of new media and hoped for “all this nonsense” to fade away quickly; and those who got terrified and hid from all the exposure to which they saw themselves subjected.

These four clusters are still around today—perhaps, they have always been out there, because disruption never stops. While the traditional business world seems to travel at 15mph, the digital part of that world travels at 70mph. No sooner do we finally understand how to fully deploy a new digital tool within our business infrastructure than it is already obsolete. As agency professionals, we must be accelerators—not the startup accelerator type, but the type that brings speed to the slow, weathered business market.

It is astounding that, well into the 21st century, there are still executives at global enterprises that fail to see the critical role of actively positioning their brand on digital platforms. We have been questioned more than once about the real relevance of working with digital influencers. Some executives avoid Youtubers, Instagrammers and bloggers in their communication and relationship strategies because “they are not professional.”

Don’t get me wrong. I know that guiding and supporting companies through this transition is our job—our mission, even. If questions like these still linger, it is because we are disrupting—or transforming—century-old mechanisms that are still up and running here and there. It is hard—and sometimes frustrating—work. Yet, it must be done.

It is worth noting that, when I say ‘century-old’, I am not specifically referring to organizations that have been around for many decades. Not at all. In fact, many of those organizations have been the ones to adapt quickly to the emergence of new media: Coca-Cola, IBM and Itaú are great examples of companies who used digital communication strategies to strengthen their positioning.

However, there are many companies born right into fertile online soil, whose business models are fully cloud-based, that still consider print media as the sole means of bringing attention to their business. They understand the power of big data and have internet-connected devices at the core of their business, yet insist on communications strategies that fail to take advantage of the benefits of these very tools. This counterintuitive thinking is the greatest challenge faced by professionals seeking to use the digital transformation to their benefit in business communications.

Another challenge is the group of professionals who portray the digital communications world as inaccessible to the common business executive, which is why their help is needed. These “Digital Experts” carry a seemingly cool image and use obfuscating jargon to further the idea that they are the gatekeepers of knowledge about the digital communications world, and that their work can only be understood by fellow experts.

In communication agencies of all sizes, a high wall has been built between what the market calls Traditional and Digital PR, or Online and Offline PR. This division is even reflected in the way some offices arrange their physical space. This divide has split roles and ignited a ‘cold war’ within agencies. On one side, the ‘Traditional PR’ gang tries to prove its value, although it is generally seen internally as old-fashioned and not strategy-oriented. On the other side, the ‘Digital PR’ gang tries to win the respect of doubting customers, although its members are often seen as unprofessional or immature.

A piece of advice for the agencies that still organize like this: You are doing it wrong. You do not need a Head of Digital—you need leadership that understands different strategies and how to deploy them. If you have a Head of Digital, you should rethink your organizational structure and downsize your leadership. Once you have done that, eliminate segmentation at the customer service level—the customer interface team must be able to recommend strategies of all kinds. You can have internal experts, of course, but they ought to operate backstage and play more of a consulting role. Do not have them report to the Digital department. They must report to this more flexible, agnostic leadership.

It is high time business communication agencies quit banging their heads against the wall and truly understand the digital transformation that they themselves are preaching to the market. If this power struggle ends and gives way to empathy and knowledge sharing, everyone wins.

(This article was originally published on the Brazilian website Meio & Mensagem)