The business, the board, and marketing

With tumultuous times ahead, understanding your board’s decision-making habits becomes all the more important. Here’s what your marketing team can do to avoid the pitfalls of the bad habits of directors.

As we near the halfway mark of the year, perhaps the only thing every marketing leader can agree on is that we are in a storm which has yet to peak. This universal tumult changes the complexion of what marketers are pitching to their boards, which are likely to be demanding marketing plans or business cases that are judiciously calculated and can promise solid, irreproachable return on investment. 

Seasoned marketers have a plan for everything and every time – but as a white paper explores, directors are human and they can fall short under pressure, forming or falling deeper into bad habits which might affect whether your marketing campaign or initiative is funded.

What are a few of these bad habits, and what are the strategies to counter them and pursue your marketing team’s goals? Here are a few to assess and prepare for.

Bad habit #1: Underestimating the dimension of a crisis on their own workforce. 

Strong marketing leaders will be highly cognisant of the need to maintain a sense of unity and good morale in their teams, especially at times when crisis hits or recession is looming and people start to worry about their jobs and those of their colleagues. Some directors sit on multiple boards and don’t have a great handle on who actually makes these companies run. 

A stand-out recent example in New Zealand was the extraordinarily sudden closure of Today FM – some presenters and studio staff got the news while they were live on air in the morning, and by 5pm that day the station’s online and on-air presence had been all but scrubbed from existence. The MediaWorks board was reportedly acting on pressing financial imperatives, but onlookers were left with the impression that due consideration had not been given to the effect of this decision on the workforce. This caused an avoidable media crisis and may have triggered some larger legal challenges for the company, as former employees explore their options.

A strategy: Many marketers work alongside or as part of larger communication teams. Use any opportunity you have with the board to advocate for renewed focus on internal and external communication processes directed at bridging the chasm between the board and workforce to a) help the board understand the sentiment on the ground and b) make practical recommendations to the board to forestall any resignations of key employees and prevent a drop in general staff motivation. 

Base your strategy on what you know the board cares about most: if it’s the bottom line, show them the short, sharp business case for concentrating on internal comms through the crisis period. Tell them how the organisation can bolster, champion, and reward staff, listen to and acknowledge them, and recognise their commitment and effort through a tough time. Losing great people – especially to competitors – and plummeting morale or mental health among those who stay means poorer overall performance, which can exacerbate and even prolong the crisis and recovery.

Bad habit #2: Not understanding the key stakeholders of the organisation, both internal and external. 

Fundamentally these include staff and customers but extend to partners and suppliers, the media, the general public, and investors or shareholders. Boards that don’t have a full picture of their accountability are unlikely to mount an effective response to a red flag or issue that can become a full-blown crisis.

A strategy: Be ready to gently yet firmly remind your board who your organisation serves and how your marketing team has a track record of connecting with, influencing, and selling to these target demographics. Part of the challenge for a board and executive leadership at times of upheaval and unpredictability is discipline, keeping a cool head, and sticking to the company’s knitting. 

By refocusing activity on core stakeholders and the tried-and-true ways to reach and motivate them, the company can invest in doing what it does best so that it can ride out the storm having (at least) retained its market share and reputation.

In terms of wider stakeholders – staff, regulators, or the general public – marketing and communications should align to flag any concerns and draw up a plan or update an existing one to manage issues. This can be presented to the board as essential investment to ensure the business as usual functions can continue unimpeded in service of the bottom line.

Bad habit #3: Not coming prepared.

Directors don’t always prepare for meetings or read their board reports. And in a 2018 McKinsey Global Survey of more than 1,100 directors, respondents reported spending 24 days per year on board matters, compared with 26 days reported in 2015. If your marketing proposal is part of the board papers, your own “stakeholder engagement” with leadership and board should be prioritised so they take notice.

A strategy: For a less attentive board, try a ‘just the headlines’ approach to briefing directors on major marketing moves for their buy-in. You might streamline your plan, initiative, or update into five or 10 key bullet points which tell the board what it needs to know now and gets you the approvals you need to run with it. Simpler is better, and you won’t be wasting time preparing detailed materials that might go unread.

A winning approach to any board

Whatever your board’s shortcomings may be, the clearest path to securing funding for the marketing function in a recessionary setting is to present a clear, compelling case of the value of marketing to the organisation. Be prepared to outline the marketing activities that have succeeded in the past and the work you can do now to help weather the recession. Present a strategy to become more competitive in an adverse climate; have ideas for what to do if the conditions last a few more months or two or three more years. If we can’t have certainty, demonstrate flexibility and creativity. 

Top tips

Learn the board’s decision-making process – what are the key steps that your board follows?

Understand the board’s goals – what is its overall mission and purpose? 

Recognise the board’s limitations and bad habits – what holds it back in making progress?

Know the board’s stakeholders – who contributes to the board’s decision-making process? 

Establish strong relationships with board members – and invest in good communication processes with them. 

Be aware of the board’s decision-making process – such as when it is appropriate to provide input and when it is not. 

Be aware of the board’s biases – the impact of gender, age, and other factors on decision making.

Understand the board’s strategy – the types of decisions that the board is likely to make and why. 

Monitor the board’s progress – how decisions are being made and how long it takes.

To learn about all 23 bad board habits, read the white paper on issue and crisis management by multi-award-winning agency Alexander PR with contributions from global experts and members of the Public Relations Global Network. 

This article was originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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