Strategic Communications is misunderstood — here’s what to do about it
She had the Caesar salad. I had a Cuban sandwich. Together, we had a wonderfully enlightening conversation about the corporate communications team she leads at a national retail company.
Our conversation took place in the context of communications as a poorly understood and underappreciated discipline. If you’re nodding your head, read on. If not, consider yourself fortunate to work in an organization that places Strategic Communications where it should be — at the table for business strategy discussions and absolutely critical to earning the trust and confidence of employees, officers, boards, investors, and the like.
Here are just a few factors that cause Strategic Communications to be misunderstood in some organizations:
Factor #1: Everyone's a communication expert
Factor #2: Sins of the past (aka the order-taking mentality)
Factor #3: It’s a "soft" discipline with hard to measure results
Factor #4: Communications is a nebulous term claimed by everyone from proposal writers to speech coaches, IT providers to digital marketers
So, what to do about it. Well, here are a few ideas from two communicators who know well the context described and have done something about it in their careers.
Establish some real boundaries around your role. If there are no actual parameters around your role, work with senior communications leaders and your business partners to establish some. You either take this credibility-building step and earn your seat at the table or risk what I call the "lowest common denominator effect.” This is, in short, the idea that communicators are just writers and executers. Expect to occupy this space unless you do something to upgrade your role to strategist and orchestrator.
Sell (and I mean literally sell) the tangible value of Strategic Communications. If metrics are hard to come by, lean on your business partners who likely have access to metrics that provide a gauge for communication effectiveness. Take the additional step of enlisting help from Research+Data Insights, Ragan, or IABC which are underutilized resources to help measure your work. Shake the wholly unfair rep of Strategic Communications as hard to measure.
Find some glass and break it the first chance you have. Changing the context in which you operate must be done early to have a lasting effect. Even better, ask questions during an interview about the company's approach to communications and make your own determination about how enlightened and sophisticated the function is there.
Embrace healthy conflict as a necessary part of business. If executives and senior communications leaders aren't getting hard truths from you, they'll get them somewhere else. The "lowest common denominator effect" applies here as well, except in this case it's self-inflicted by communicators. As my lunch partner said, "don't underestimate yourself — many others will do that for you." Speak truth if you want to be taken seriously as a communicator.
Say “no” confidently and politely. Some of your communications colleagues have figured out how to do so gracefully and can show you how. Sacrifice short-term discomfort (which is likely) for long-term impact, career growth, and satisfaction. Remember that relationships take constant care, especially when you're changing the context in which you operate. Acknowledge this fact when you’re working to advance the work you do and the resulting impact you’ll have.
Many executives, and some senior communications leaders, seldom work with a confident, strategic communicator who understands the context in which they operate. It's up to you to realize this truth and take steps to elevate your role as a strategist and orchestrator. Only the credibility and legitimacy of Strategic Communications is at stake.