You just landed a job running the communications shop of an organization, and you can’t wait to dive in.
You start to build relationships, draw up strategic plans and get people excited with your big-picture thinking, and then—nothing. Your new plans stall, initiatives don’t go anywhere, and you start to question how much appetite there is to try new things.
That’s when it dawns on you that the biggest challenge you face isn’t budget, resources or inherent desire—but the culture in which you operate.
Even the most talented communication leaders can find it difficult to overcome the “we’ve always done it this way” company mentality. That’s because, as powerful as it may be, it’s also nebulous. It’s never written down or enforced by any one person. It’s simply the air everyone has chosen to breathe, and they aren’t inclined to question it.
Although it’s not an easy task, there are ways to break through the cultural malaise standing in the way of positive change. It all starts by recognizing the kind of cultural trap you face, and how to deal with common barriers to progress. Here are three challenging cultural obstacles, along with tips to overcome each:
These leadership teams value consensus building above all else, often to avoid making tough decisions. For communication professionals, that means everyone is a stakeholder. Sure, the marketing team might be comfortable with your plan, but has this been run by HR? Or the sales lead who sits multiple time zones away who is impossible to reach, and doesn’t know the first thing about good versus bad communication? Meanwhile, the meetings to discuss the feedback and find alignment get pushed and eventually lost amid the daily bustle.
The best way to tackle this is to fall back on the adage about saying sorry instead of asking for permission. See an opportunity to get a result that, in theory, requires a group’s signoff? Go for it—without permission, if necessary. Get the win, and then market it back. Overthinking cultures aren’t necessarily interested in avoiding action; they’re afraid of risk.
Remember, wins will always find supporters and will make it more likely that plans will get green-lighted. Or at least, you’ll know how much runway you have in the future.
Some cultures view silence as a virtue. These organizations speak to journalists or post content only when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they don’t like to talk or make noise. Why? There’s no real explanation; that’s just how they are. They’re happy to let competitors hog the spotlight and tell their stories. This kind of thinking usually stems from a bad experience that led the organization to cocoon itself, or it’s the influence of a nervous senior leader.
For PR people, this usually means trying to get someone to do something and watching in frustration as golden opportunities to drive brand awareness come and go. The best approach here is to enlist allies. Find a customer or partner who is open to doing a case study. It’s harder to say no to someone tied to revenue than it is to a communications director.
You might also try getting senior leaders on the event/speaking circuit and drive coverage and content that way, as it comes at no extra effort to them. Finally, try to use your competitors to your advantage. Set up a steady stream of emails of coverage and blog posts showing them winning in the industry and keep at it. It’s hard to deny what’s in front of you.
Then there are the organizations that take their entire cue from the whims of talented but erratic leaders. The only priorities that matter are the ones on their mind that day. Important work is often stalled as other executives deal with side projects these leaders like to dream up and implement, only to abandon them. Just one stumbled-upon article or random comment made at an event can lead to major (and unplanned) course corrections.
For communications professionals, this kind of culture can be a blessing and a curse. These leaders often love the spotlight and can’t get enough of it, making results much easier to achieve. The downside is that they love to talk and write about whatever they feel like in a given moment. The result is a job that feels more like damage control than communication strategy.
One tested solution: Create vanity projects—essentially, fill the leader’s calendar and keep him or her busy with speaking events, approving pre-drafted bylines or a challenge to write a certain number of blog posts on key topics. Stroke that ego and channel that energy for good, but leave little spare time to come up with solutions.
Some cultures can’t be fixed, but for PR professionals who like a challenge or truly believe in the organizations they serve, addressing culture head on can pay big dividends down the road.
A version of this post first appeared on the Provident Communications blog.