Communications is often a misunderstood discipline. It seems to have loose ties to a company’s bottom line, and it’s apparently far from the corridors of corporate decision-making.
But in the last two years, during a trifecta of crises (public health, social, political), the communications department has been placed front and center, deftly handling essential stakeholder information and prioritizing employee well-being and engagement.
Yet, most communications and PR departments are not tied to revenue. Often seen as a cost center, they tend to float in the organizational chart under Marketing or HR.
The time has come for a change.
Communications is one of the most powerful revenue generators for a company.
And communicators are the architects of a brand’s story, the messengers of critical information, and the stewards of an organization’s reputation and community relations.
The communications department does generate revenue through its campaigns and initiatives. You just don’t hear much about it.
No longer a nice-to-have, a communications department is a must-have for organizations that understand the dynamics between employee and brand, between customer and corporate purpose, and behind trust, transparency, and mission.
Although the chief marketing officer is a common title in most midsize to large organizations, the chief communications officer is a unique find. The lack of CCOs on org charts is reflective of short-sighted organizational thinking and strategy permeating corporate America.
The PR perception problem
PR execs are often not invited into boardroom conversations or strategy and budget meetings because they are seen as supportive, not additive, to revenue decisions. Those on the inside, in employee/internal communications, lament the order-taking role they find themselves in and struggle to find the KPIs that matter most to the C-suite.
Even those at the highest ranks of the PR/communications profession operate without a budget to directly manage. A well-regarded senior executive who recently joined a multinational shared her excitement with me about her finally getting a P&L to manage. After 25 years in communications at Fortune 100 brands, she is now responsible for revenue generation.
Another executive, a VP of internal communications, told me she has never reviewed a budget, and she wanted to find a new job where she would have some fiscal accountability. She is an executive responsible for overseeing communications for arguably the top customer at every organization: the employee.
Fortunately, the dynamics are changing because marketers, HR execs, and the C-suite are starting to see that the communications department is not a loss leader. If you look at brand reputation through a different lens, you can see that Communications generates revenue.
CEOs highly value their communications leaders. CCOs’ most important contributions, according to research that Ragan Communications and HarrisX conducted in October/November 2021 with CEOs and communicators in North America, is protecting the reputation of the company, making data-based decisions, building relationships, and critical thinking. Although CCOs and SVPs of communications also rank those competencies highly for themselves, they gave more weight to empathy and integrity than did the CEOs who were polled.
Of the skills deemed most important by CEOs, team leadership, project management, and data analysis ranked highest, whereas for CCOs writing, media relations, and team leadership ranked highest. The good news is that CEOs and communications leaders were mostly aligned on their opinions of current contributions.
Four steps forward
Communication leaders should take four major steps to work toward being seen as part of business generation and to change the narrative around their role.
1. Prioritize data and measurement
Whether in relation to PR or internal comms, there are metrics that matter to senior leadership. Understand what those are and accept them as the North Star guiding the communications effort. Then measure, iterate, and share those metrics with business leaders, including a straight or dotted line to revenue.
2. Speak up
Ironically, communicators can sometimes lean back out of deference or habit, allowing Marketing, HR, or other business units to speak on their behalf.
Most communicators are excellent at packaging and presenting information—for their peers, especially. Time to expand the audience to include the C-suite, the board, and other stakeholders.
3. Get in the driver’s seat around DEI and ESG
Unpack the alphabet soup of corporate priorities, from diversity, equity, and inclusion to environmental, social, and governance. Communicators are in a prime position to craft strategy around those priorities because they recognize both the need for change and the impact such initiatives have on talent retention, brand reputation, and the bottom line.
Although DEI and ESG initiatives should be co-owned by many business units, communicators need to carve out their ownership piece now.
4. Defend the value of the employee
Businesses continue to grapple with office reopenings, vaccine mandates, the Great Resignation, and more employees’ working from home and demanding a more equitable work/life balance.
Workplace culture is being redefined in ways unforeseen just three years ago, and the dust will not settle for years to come.
In the middle of that are communicators, who have the opportunity to amplify the voice of the employee, create a workplace that keeps employees engaged and motivated, and prove that a healthy workplace equals a healthy business.
Communicators as business leaders
Communicators should not sell themselves short. To be seen as business leaders like their marketing counterparts, they must lead with a business mindset, not a communications mindset. They need to be viewed by leadership as business executives first and communicators second.
Reading a balance sheet and budget, understanding their company’s ecosystem and business dynamics, being fluent in business and economics—those are critical competencies for any communicator who wants to be heard and heeded.
Reputation management, employee communications, media relations, and community engagement are bedrocks of communication, and they do not need to be a revenue line item to be viewed as a revenue generator. The communication department needs to change the narrative and make sure that its value proposition is connected to organizational growth and health.
That is the bottom line for communicators.