To put it bluntly, corporate communications is the spurned stepchild of top-tier executives.
In many organizations, the function hardly gets the attention it deserves—until a crisis hits. Undervaluing the importance of powerful communication is a mistake, and it’s costing some companies dearly.
“Like many other soft skills, [communication] is undervalued in corporations, because it’s difficult to measure,” says Dorie Clark, author and adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
The skill “requires a high tolerance of ambiguity, contradiction and subtlety (i.e., softness),” communications expert Walter G. Montgomery writes on Knowledge@Wharton, and many senior leaders prefer to reserve that kind of thinking for strategic decisions.
It doesn’t help that business schools tend to squeeze corporate communications in among heavy-duty statistics and accounting courses, even though it encompasses everything from media and community relations to internal and investor relations.
The way an organization communicates determines its success or failure. By now, we’re already familiar with the damage a CEO’s ill-considered tweet can do.
“Managers need exposure to communications, especially now,” says Tim Andree, executive chairman of Dentsu Aegis Network. “The communications model changes every six to seven months. There’s media convergence, new technology, and new analytics. It affects how you need to communicate and how people get their information.”
Meeting new communications challenges
Fortunately, some companies are taking note and responding accordingly. A pilot program designed by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is being conducted at five business schools, including Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, to educate emerging business leaders about reputation management and strategic communications.
According to a recent Korn Ferry survey, the role of the chief communications officer is broadening.
“These best-in-class corporate affairs officers shoulder a broadening scope of responsibilities and an increasing mandate to act as high-level strategic advisers to CEOs,” the report’s authors write, “and they frequently serve as members of the senior leadership team.”
Though it’s still tough to measure the efficacy of corporate communications, new tools in sentiment analysis, reputation analysis and brand assessment are adding rigor to the field. Tools such as Biz360 and TweetEffect Social are also helping companies measure how followers engage with their messaging on social media platforms.
5 new rules of corporate communications
In the meantime, corporate leaders can help improve how their companies communicate. Here are five steps to take:
1. Recruit talented, senior-level communications executives.
Seek people with solid business skills and deep knowledge of the organization’s products and processes. The challenges of the role make it increasingly essential that candidates hold an MBA, says David Moyer, president of Moyer, Sherwood Associates, which specializes in corporate communications and PR.
More broadly, companies should give communications chiefs the titles, reporting relationships, access and resources to be effective companywide. That means investing in senior communications roles for the long term.
Communications professionals like to tout that they are quick studies, but it can take years to truly understand a company’s business. A communications staffer without the right level of industry knowledge won’t get the respect it takes to do an effective job. Being the perpetual new kid on the block is a strategic liability.
2. Learn to trust and understand the communications function.
Executives can’t get away with listening to their communications leaders with half an ear. Companies “need to learn more about communications and the communications consequences of their actions and not treat it like a foreign language,” Moyer says.
Otherwise, they’ll end up spending too much time mopping up after crises, rather than preempting them. Not only can that be tremendously expensive, but communication blunders can do major damage to companies’ brands.
3. Let communications leaders advise and educate top-tier execs.
If corporations ought to listen better to their communications leaders, then the reverse is also true. Communications execs must help other leaders understand why they’re important.
“Good communications chiefs recognize that one leg of their job is representing communications to senior management,” Moyer says. “They can point to communication wins in that area with the same pride they do to a media relations victory outside. The CFO or the head of engineering doesn’t need to explain their functions the same way, but the communications person needs to do this.”
4. Eliminate command/control communications.
“The best companies are transparent, and when they are wrong, they promptly admit it rather than hide behind corporate-speak,” Clark says. Closing ranks can be dangerous in the digital age, but it’s a most common reaction when things go wrong.
“Apologize, take responsibility, and do what’s necessary to right the wrong,” she says. “Companies shouldn’t compound their problems by obfuscating or denying responsibility for problems; that simply drags out the story and ensures it’ll be at the top of news headlines and Twitter feeds for days and weeks to come.”
5. Let employees be ambassadors, Clark advises.
Don’t muzzle them on social media.
“Smart, far-sighted companies recognize that if employees are using social media anyway, you might as well tap that power,” she says. “Give them information about the company’s vision, goals and what it’s doing, and allow them to spread that positive message online. They’ll have far more credibility among their friends and contacts than your official brand page ever could.”
How has your organization handled its communications? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
Wendy Marx is president of Marx Communications, which helps SMBs become well-known industry brands and transform their business through public relations and inbound marketing. Email her at email@example.com, and follow her on Twitter @wendymarx. A version of this article originally ran on Fast Company.