Today, corporate Communications should not be a unilateral exercise carried out solely by Comms people. If s/he is to shape the company's messages in the right way, the Comms Director needs to have an antenna out for rumour and hearsay.

"Instead of 'Broadcasting', the Comms Director Should Act as an Antenna"

Interview with Patrick Ropert, Director of Communications at the French national railway company SNCF, on the sidelines of a conference entitled From the Communications Era to the Conversation Era: What Future for the Comms Director?, held at the French Institute for Political Studies, in partnership with L'Atelier.

L'Atelier: Every day SNCF transports millions of people, who are all likely to be expressing their opinions non-stop via the social networks.  Are these tools seen as a risk or as a way to improve your customer relations?

Patrick Ropert: You have to regard it as an opportunity, quite simply as a new way to get close to the customer and bring back the human element.  Yes, it true that complaints are always more noticeable, but we had them in the past as well and then they were harder to deal with than today because now we can handle them directly.  The customer’s stress reaction is a direct result of the specific nature of our product:  we are part of people’s everyday lives. 

Sure, but that means you have to be responsive at all times. And those responding on behalf of the company will not necessarily be working in the Communications department.  Is this ‘fragmentation’ of communications difficult to manage?

It’s true that staff can respond to customer issues without my department having control over the information being put out.  But most staff have a good understanding of the company values. We have an internal discussion platform called Opinions and Discussions and in the four years it’s been running we’ve never had a single comment from a staff member that was misplaced.  You have to learn to trust your people, to loosen your grip.  As long as that fosters dialogue across the board. Nowadays you can’t ignore the risk factor arising from consumer power.  It might create a groundswell of complaints that could leave us stranded if we don’t watch out.

So the Communications Director has to learn to listen?  

Absolutely. To everything, all the time.  I took a great interest in what happened during the recent Arab Spring. There were aspects to that which were very similar to the crisis we faced in  January 2011, which could have spread rapidly if we’d simply turned a deaf ear to what people were saying.  So, basically, the Comms Director used to “broadcast” the message.  Nowadays he has to be able to listen and adapt the company message in the light of public opinion. 

So if s/he isn’t the sole “broadcaster” any more, does that mean all employees are becoming company communicators?

No. Anyone can talk, but that doesn’t mean everyone is a communicator.  It is true however that the management teams, i.e. the people that have traditionally spoken to the media, have taken some time to observe was happening with the digital world.

What I’ve seen happening is that our profession has had to reinvent itself somewhat.  At the end of the 2000s, we were still more or less living in the era of 1970s public relations, when you had things under control.  But today the boundaries are shifting and there are new expectations. So you have to learn how to manage this new type of relationship. We’re in a learning phase and we’re just about to cross the frontier into new territory.