Corporate Affairs: New Challenges in a New Era
It goes without saying that COVID hit businesses hard, starting with Asia. Now the region is leading business recovery by embracing new opportunities for innovation and adaption. Corporate Affairs and Communications professionals have been catapulted into the spotlight to implement change and drive stronger relationships with their own headquarters.
Andrews Partnership gathered over 35 Heads of Corporate Affairs and Communications from across China – and a mix of industries – aiming to identify and share experiences of the new challenges and opportunities facing big business in China and the critical role the CA function is playing in the new vision.
After a year of COVID-19-related challenges, the China market has bounced back faster than ever, in both a social and business context. From a talent perspective, we at Andrews Partnership have witnessed corporates making ever more strategic hires for their Heads of Corporate Affairs in key markets with complex challenges such as China.
We asked: What are the challenges keeping the most senior Corporate Affairs professionals up at night?
Against an increasingly complex geopolitical backdrop, companies from around the world are still eyeing up the growth opportunities that a market such as China presents. Simultaneously, corporates walk a considered line with the geo-political challenges between China and, for foreign companies, their HQs, with Heads of Corporate Affairs in a privileged position, driving external and internal relations, juggling heightened local government regulations, consumer demands and HQ stakeholder positioning.
“The real challenge is the risk of misalignment between the market and the home office,” remarked a Head of Corporate Affairs from a US multinational, “with additional pressure caused by the lack of travel and physical face time with our colleagues abroad.”
What actionable steps are companies putting into practice?
The fine balancing act that the Head of Corporate Affairs must manage is creating strong messaging alignment with headquarters to ensure both a joined up approach to communications and also to ensure HQ understand the complex challenges facing their colleagues in China. This can be achieved by updating procedures, keeping everyone informed of new regulatory changes and consumer behaviour, and complemented by leveraging counterparts in HQ who are as internationally well-travelled as is demanded from Heads of CA in China. All of these safeguards allow for potential threats to reputation to be quickly escalated to the top before becoming an issue.
Frank and open communication is as equally important in the local market as with headquarters, in relation to government, the consumer and local workforce. In some cases the Government Affairs and Communications teams join forces to set the external narrative together.
Evolving trends are focused on digital consumer communications, as they are with hybrid meetings for internal staff.
As a result of COVID people were home bound, and discovered new way to access products and services. As a result, companies are shifting their focus to online growth, and their digital resources.
On the flipside of growing online spending power comes far more opportunity to field consumer complaints online. The client is ever more demanding, bigger and more critical responses are required.
Global scrutiny has been focused on supply chain well before COVID-19 and that focus will continue beyond it. Amid renewed global scrutiny, companies are being forced by both political and consumer audiences to ensure that they have impeccable supplier codes of conduct and fully audited supply chains. The role of the Chief Corporate Affairs officer is to communicate with transparency and sensitivity, as well as see round corners and be able to predict potential risk and therefore put in place contingency plans.
As China moves into Phase 3 of its response to the pandemic, which has loosely been termed the ‘new normal’, large businesses can expect three major changes, all of which are accompanied by implications for Corporate Affairs, which is tasked with setting a consistent approach and single voice for the business:
- The new consumer generation: Customers who have embraced digital interactions with business expect those seamless transactions not just to continue, but to be enhanced. This is especially true to the youngest generation of consumers. Corporate Affairs will play a critical role in ensuring the inevitable hitches and problems will be addressed, and that negative consumer sentiment will not be allowed to overwhelm a business’ digital reputation.
- Brand storytelling. With fewer opportunities to engage customer face-to-face through storefronts, businesses are increasingly reliant on Communications and Corporate Affairs professionals, together with their Marketing teams, to build the brand narrative. It’s a challenging time, especially as those narratives evolve in the wake of the pandemic and in a time of political turbulence.
- Skill development. Corporate Affairs professionals who began their careers engaging stakeholders ‘in real life’ are finding those interactions remain, but are being supplemented by digital engagement. Equally, the stakeholder set has increased dramatically to include non-traditional media, influencers and consumer activists. The shorter news cycle and greater exposure to global content comes at a time when China’s own cultural impact – domestically and on the region – is also growing, creating new opportunities and new potential for conflict. Corporate Affairs professionals are being called on to digitise their skillsets and to better understand the new media landscape so as to drive a positive narrative for their brands.
With the help of strategic senior hires in Corporate Affairs, companies are making the right decisions to navigate these challenges and to bridge any gaps between the business opportunities in China and broader planning in headquarters.
Andrews Partnership are the reputation experts, with offices in Hong Kong and Singapore working across Asia, as the leading specialist corporate affairs, communications and investor relations executive search firm. We excel at understanding each organisation's unique challenges and appointing the right talent, who make meaningful business impact.