What’s Next in Communications?: A Panel Discussion

With the shifting sands of media and technology, what does it mean to be a savvy communications professional right now?

Prof. Paul Argenti posed that question to a select group of top communications executives on July 31, 2015 at the Strategic Communications: International Perspectives panel called The Future of the Profession: What Role Can Communications Play?. Hosted at Columbia’s Maison Française at Buell Hall, the panel included Joe Cohen, Senior VP of Communications for KIND Healthy Snacks; Adam Grossberg, Chief Communications Officer of WebMD; Deirdre Latour, Chief Communications Officer of GE; D’Arcy Rudnay, Executive Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Comcast Corporation; and Dawn Schneider, founder of Schneider Group Media and former Director of Communications for Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. The group spoke to about two dozen students from countries across the globe, senior-level marketing communications professionals who hailed from a wide range of organizations in the public and private sectors.

The Sea Change in Media

Above, L to R: Paul Argenti, Dawn Schneider, Joe Cohen, Adam Grossberg, D’Arcy Rudnay, and Deirdre Latour

Argenti kicked off the discussion by asking a broad question, “What are the most important things for communications professionals like you to focus on over the next five years?” The group seemed to converge on the advances in technology, and the ensuing changes in the media landscape.

Latour of GE said, “The [business] models are shifting so fast…[yet] earned media is more important than ever.” Rudnay lamented that, due to the rapidity of the news cycle these days, “you can’t even tell a full story” to the press. Cohen examined the issue from the media’s point of view: “You have media outlets that are relying on younger reporters. There’s pressure [on journalists] to drive high click-throughs with headlines,” he said. “What that means for communicators is, you have to be able to deliver quick and simple messages.” He also pointed out a positive element of the digital media economy, which is that it’s easier than ever for communications professionals to show their value. Metrics such as clicks, shares, likes, and tweets reveal to what extent a communications team drives results for a brand. As with any other communications tool, pros must become conversant in how to maximize the medium and mastermind the best possible strategy.

Above, D’Arcy Rudnay

Despite the indelible changes in digital and social media, the tasks of communications professionals remain the same: tell your brand’s story, remain relevant, find a way to work with the press, and make a measurable impact.

Offering Value at Your Organization

Above, L to R: Dawn Schneider, Joe Cohen, and Adam Grossberg

The moderator shifted focus to the role of communications professionals within their organizations. How can PR and marketing pros offer value? Grossberg of WebMD advised the audience not just to learn about one’s organization but, more broadly, one’s industry. Schneider suggested distinguishing oneself by developing meaningful connections with the media. “The worst thing you can do,” she said, “is only call reporters when you need them. You have to understand what they think is interesting, and you’re never going to do that by sitting in conference rooms.” Cohen encouraged the audience to reimagine one’s role, and to think of oneself not just as a PR person but as a strategic counselor. Especially in a time of crisis, a communications professional can use his or her strategic skills and emotional intelligence to truly shine.

Above, L to R: Joe Cohen and Adam Grossberg

Rudnay offered more personal advice. “It’s really important to find your voice,” she said. She underscored the need to speak up when the company is making a bad decision. “They’re going to make a mistake, it’s going to impact your brand, and it might impact you personally. Do not be complacent….Find your voice, stick to it.”

Claiming Your Seat at the Table

Above: Deirdre Latour

At the end of the discussion, the panelists took questions from the audience. One attendee posed a personal question: How can a female communications professional gain confidence in an organization dominated by men? Latour of GE said, “There are many times when I’m the only woman [at a meeting]. You have to have an inner dialogue that says that you deserve your seat at the table.” She continued, “You’re in the role for a reason. You have to believe in your skill.”

The insights seemed to fortify the audience of international communications professionals. As the event came to a close and the panel members dispersed, the two groups exchanged a flurry of business cards, hoping to connect again online and continue to share knowledge with each other across the globe.