Lead, Follow Or Get Out Of The Way: PR’s Role In Guiding Change

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." - Charles Darwin Whether you're a believer or not, it's hard to argue that Charles Darwin didn't know a thing or two about change. And while his theories surrounding peppered moths and their adaptive qualities during England's industrial revolution are - at least on the surface - irrelevant, communications leaders today surely feel an urgent sense of social Darwinism in their organizations: It's survival of the fittest, and executives are dropping like flies. The most urgent question is not why this is happening, as that answer is easy; rather, the question is what communications professionals can do to enable their organizations to evolve and change in the turbulent business environment. It's not an insignificant challenge, as its solution is complex and multi-faceted; however, as evidenced by a handful of presenters at last week's International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) conference held in New Orleans, there are strategies ripe for the picking. The crux of the solution is simple: Take ownership of that which no one else will claim. To guide and influence change management, consider the following roadmap: *Understand intangible assets and what they mean to the business' bottomline. "Intangible assets are the premium on the value of a company's tangible assets," says Diane Gayeski, CEO of Gayeski Analytics. She cites intangible assets as reputation, loyalty, corporate culture, innovation and communications, among others. An understanding of these assets, as you will soon see, becomes key to building the influence of the communications function in shaping change-management strategies. Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business, reiterates the importance of intangibles: "Corporate value increasing depends on intangible rather than tangible assets. One key intangible - reputation - provides a platform from which other investment opportunities may arise." He offers this explanation of reputation, which is more of a process than a static definition: Corporate identity (name, self-presentation, logo, etc.) is filtered through constituents (specifically, customers, investors, employees and the community); Said constituents develop their own perceptions according to their interpretation of the corporate identity; and, The sum of these perceptions equals the corporate reputation. Because control has shifted from the organization to constituents, and because the business climate is so volatile, reputation is the most precious and vulnerable thing a corporation possesses - not to mention one of the most intangible. Herein lies the opportunity for communications professionals to get out in front of a major business issue. *Take ownership of what's intangible. Business functions always clamor for that which can be quantified, but the real heart of every business' ability to endure change and evolve to become stronger is its reputation. The problem, though, is that the intangible quality of reputation often makes it a misunderstood afterthought in most business strategies. Argenti and others at the IABC conference pointed to this crucial issue - reputation and its role in enabling organizations to weather the business cycle - as a difficult one to digest because of its intangibility. But, this provides an opportunity for communicators to redefine their roles in an organization and, in turn, to lead change. "[Communicators have the opportunity to] frame their job as the manager of the organization's intangible assets," says Gayeski. "They can be builders of the performance system, human capital assets managers and performance engineers." *Turn ownership of reputation into strategic messaging opportunities. "Today's tumultuous business environment is ripe with reputational risks that everyone is by now familiar with, and companies realize the need to change and evolve," Argenti says. "The problem is that they build a strategy without first aligning their identity, mission and goals. How can you execute a strategy without these things? The answer is, you can't." If you can accept this ominous reality, then your job just got a little bit more manageable. We have already established that reputation is defined and driven by what your constituents think of you, so it is only natural to consider their views, in conjunction with the business context, when forming messages and strategies. Don't build strategies around what your CEO thinks you need; build them around what your constituents think you need. Argenti recommends asking yourself these questions: What is the best communications channel? How should the organization structure this message? Who are the organization's constituents? What are their attitudes about the organization? What are their attitudes about the issue at hand? *Understand that change can be situational. While Web 2.0 and other phenomena drive change in a broad context, change can also be organization-specific. During times of internal change, for example, communicators still must protect the reputation, in this case by managing the employee stakeholder base's perception of what is happening. Gap Inc. serves as a best practice of this, as described in a presentation by Barbara Fagan-Smith of ROI Communications and Alison Ekizian of Gap. When Gap decided to outsource its IT infrastructure organization to IBM in 2004 amidst a number of change initiatives, including a new CIO, new VP transformations and critical media coverage, the communications team developed a strategy with its key constituent (its employees) in mind. It looked something like this: Forge a compatible partnership. Gap leaders developed a list of must-haves when seeking an agency partner, which included the ability to: adapt to Gap's culture; build relationships with Gap's internal and external communications teams; integrate seamlessly into the internal communications team; operate as a full member of the IT transformation organization; and bring ideas and change expertise to the table. Start with guiding principles. This tactic circles back to the idea that forming a strategy based on reputational needs as defined by constituents is key. Honing in on principals that directly affected employees - smoothness of transition, transparency, availability of transition resources and information - made them feel like they were integral players in the initiative instead of helpless onlookers. Establish objectives and execute the strategy based on principals. For Gap, the objective was two-fold: successfully coordinate the IBM announcement with a smooth employee transition to IBM; and stabilize and prepare the remaining IT organization for future changes. Measure success against these objectives. If, at the end of an initiative, you find that your objectives were not met, then the strategy was not aligned with the execution. Revisit the key constituent's main needs, and rework the plan accordingly. *Embody an integrated mindset. Even if your organization doesn't have a formally integrated structure, it can still reap many of integration's benefits. Because these benefits often have reputation implications - the ability to shape external perceptions and reputation, to optimize shareholder value and to conduct strategic and efficient business development, according to Argenti - integration falls within communications' purview. Consider these approaches to integration: Revise reporting relationships Form a communications council Create a communications integration manager position Leverage technology FedEx is the living embodiment of how strategic integration enhances reputation and stabilizes change. The company's core mission is built on "One Vision. One Voice," and communications to all its constituents revert back to that value. It makes the FedEx brand - technically an intangible asset - something that all its stakeholders can grasp and define with confidence. The fact that it all stems from message alignment - not to mention a penchant for transparency and collaboration - strengthens the communications function's position as a strategic advisor. *Be a consultant. You may have all the weapons in your arsenal necessary to protect and enhance corporate reputation during change, but it's all for naught if the organization's senior-most leaders won't pull the trigger. These tips will help you position yourself as a valued counselor: Speak to the business situation in terms of problems and solutions. Mapping out the bigger picture, as recommended by Lorri Lennon of Business Interconnexions and Alvin Wong of Westpac Banking Corporation, shows that communicators don't think in a vacuum. Define success and excellence in the context of your corporate culture. Based on all of the above information, communicators can and should own the intangible assets of corporate reputation and brand. Because reputation is largely built on the corporation's identity and culture, then success should be measured against that standard. If you don't already have a basic knowledge of management, get some. "From the agency point of view, you have to reposition to transcend traditional public relations," says Eric Morgenstern, president and CEO of Morningstar Communications. "Meeting business goals is what puts food on the table. PR practitioners have to understand business goals and find ways to achieve them through strategic planning, message platforms and sales-force enhancements." In that vein, Argenti recommends peppering your communications team with MBAs - that gives you leverage when approaching the C-suite with strategic advice. CONTACTS: Paul Argenti, paul.argenti@dartmouth.edu; Diane Gayeski, diane@dgayeski; Lorri Lennon, lorri@businessinterconnexions.com.au; Alvin Wong, alvinwong@westpac.com.au; Barbara Fagan-Smith, bfs@roico.com; Alison Ekizian, alison_ekizian@gap.com; Eric Morgenstern, emorgenstern@morningstarcomm.com

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