In my experience, decision making executives in a variety of sectors often fail to recognize the value their communications people bring to their organization. Often, this arises because the communicators themselves have not adequately conveyed the value they provide in a way that resonates with management.
As a senior decision maker, regardless of whether your organization is a startup or a mature technology company, you can make a powerful shift in your thinking by framing the communications function as a strategic element of your organization’s business development and revenue generation activities. Effective communicators contribute far more than the typical “stuff” of communications, such as news releases, speeches or events. They can provide unique counsel that will bring insightful and strategic “outside-in” thinking to your organization.
What is “outside-in” thinking?
This is the unique, powerful ability common to successful communicators to know how an issue will play among your key audiences. It is a combination of intangible skill, experience and instinct.
In this capacity, your communications people can contribute strategic value by bringing an external perspective to internal discussions on issues or projects. Applying “outside-in” thinking to challenges will immediately inject a fresh perspective to deliberations, which otherwise often get mired in the internal dynamics of process.
However, like any other department within an organization, from sales to R&D, the communications function needs care and nurturing from senior management. Here are three ways in which the efforts of the communications team are commonly undermined.
How the communications function goes off track
First, communications is often seen at best as overhead, and at worse, as a “nice to have” function that is often one of the first places where budgets get squeezed. This usually ends up being a death by a thousand cuts through a slow, painful erosion of funding and staffing that renders the communications function so under resourced that a self-fulfilling prophecy ensues – sure, the communications function hasn’t done much for me lately, but how could it under these conditions?
Second, there is a pervasive under-recognition of the value of the communications profession in day-to-day operations, relative to other functional groups. This is classically demonstrated by the reality that when a subject matter expert or lawyer scribbles comments on a draft news release or announcement, the red ink is seen as the word of the gospel. In contrast, too often, a communications director’s comments are seen as subjective editorial comments and decision makers either take it, or leave it.
Third is what I call the communications profession’s classic lament, which is now emblematic of our industry. It goes like this: “Why can’t we gain access to the senior management table?” or “How can we get the C-suite to listen?” Your top communications people should be regarded as mission-critical, highly valued advisors – a resource you should, frankly, exploit for the overall benefit of your organization.
When considering the value that the communications function provides to your organization, or when trying to convince other executives, think about it this way: if tomorrow someone swooped down and cut out the entire communications function and team from your organization, what would be missing? Where would the pain be? What would keep your executives up at night with worry?
Defining strategic value
So what can you do, as a senior decision maker, to support the communications function and ensure it is providing strategic value to your organization?
Here are my Top 10 Questions for strategic communicators, best answered in collaboration with the management team:
- What does success look like?
- Why this, why now?
- What are the project or corporate objectives?
- What are the communications objectives?
- How can effective communications help advance the project or corporate objectives?
- What are the main risks and opportunities?
- Thinking back about past communications activities, what worked and what didn’t? Why?
- Who are the key audiences and why are they important?
- What are the project management parameters (time, budget and human resources)?
- If we could change just one thing, what should it be?
And one last thought on “outside-in” thinking. While this is the door to providing strategic communications value to your organization, it can be difficult, because this mindset can also mean challenging insular thinking and assumptions that may have taken deep root within your company and even yourself. An open mind and a spirit of collaboration are essential to making the most of your communications people and what they have to offer.
Caroline Kealey is an internationally recognized communications strategist, speaker, trainer, facilitator and author.
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