Redefining Comms: Applying Modern Experiences to Advance the Discipline


Communications’ inherent dependence on intangible factors whose definitions are largely subjective—reputation, brand, trust, authenticity—hobbled it in the business climate of yore, before technology and shifting values elevated it to a position of power within modern organizations. As the function made its ascent, leaders within it helped reshape communications both semantically and strategically to more accurately describe the value it could contribute to all stakeholders. Buzzwords like innovation, thought leadership and corporate culture crept into communicators’ vernacular, representing various aspects of business that the discipline enhanced. But that was then. Now, the same buzzwords that helped re-brand communications have lost some of their power, prompting leaders to rethink how these critical components should be refined and reapplied in the context of the turbulent business environment. This consideration proved to be an overarching (and perhaps unintended) theme of last week’s Arthur W. Page Society Spring Seminar, in which communications leaders from corporations, agencies, media and academia gathered to discuss “Influence in the Midst of Uncertainty.” The following ideas emerged as the most critical—and most in need of revision—for communications to continue to lead organizations to success. INNOVATION Indeed, innovation became a driving force at the turn of this century, but the economic and political maelstrom challenging all organizations today begs for a new way of defining it and applying it to communications and management. “The only way through today’s perfect storm is innovation,” says Vijay Vaitheeswaran, a correspondent for The Economist. “But [as it stands now], innovation means everything to all people, which makes it mean nothing at all.” He cites the trends of globalization and “Googlization” as the reason for innovation’s denotative dissolution, and he urges executives to reapply it in an evolved way to differentiate themselves from competitors. “Innovation is not invention; increasingly, invention and technology are a less important part of the innovation process,” he says. “Much more important—and what’s often lost—is the connection with values creation.” With that, he offers the following recommendations for how communications executives can innovate to create more value: • Share the wealth: “The best companies are not willing to share some of their ideas with thought leaders around the world,” Vaitheeswaran says, pointing out the need for companies to collaborate in ways that, in the past, would have been unconscionable. “Think of yourselves as centers of excellence, but also know when to monetize value for your shareholders.” • Make educated guesses: “Innovation is no longer about money and great ideas,” Vaitheeswaran says. “It’s about rewriting the rules, knowing how to take risks and knowing when a good idea won’t add value to your company. It’s what GE calls ‘fast failing.’” • Get to the point: Use the recession as an opportunity to hone your organization’s identity. “Strong companies invest in branding during a recession,” Vaitheeswaran says, addressing the need to clearly articulate your brand values to stakeholders. “Clarity of expression flows through clarity of thought. Words must connect with actions.” CORPORATE CULTURE & ENGAGEMENT In the past, a company’s identity was created by its senior leadership and then spoon-fed (or, in some cases, force-fed) to employees, who digested it without a means of responding. But research and real-world examples have proven that companies are defined not by their senior executives but by their employees, who wield incredible power over corporate reputation. Accordingly, engaging employees and building a distinct corporate culture has taken on new meaning. “If we’re going to rebuild trust in institutions, it has to start from the inside,” says Gary Grates, president and global managing director of Edelman Change. “CEOs are finally realizing that employees are a public constituency that has to be engaged.” Based on this reality, communications execs should take the following steps to define what “corporate culture” and “engagement” mean to their organizations: • Start the conversation: “Engagement must be between managers and employees,” says Juanita James, chief marketing and communications officer of Pitney Bowes Inc. “It’s critical that managers have dialogues with employees to enable them to understand business priorities, and long- and short-term goals of the company.” • Be sensitive to their concerns: “A key message to employees should be that [managers] are using this time as a mandate for change,” says Ron Kirkpatrick, national manager, internal communications and social media, Toyota Motor Sales USA. “Be honest, be clear and be visible. Involve employees in the solution.” • Respect their time: As staff sizes shrink and the remaining employees take on more responsibilities, senior executives need to sharpen their communications and make priorities clear. One easy way to do so, according to Kirkpatrick, is to consolidate internal messages on the company intranet, and to develop a tiered system for internal e-mails. “All e-mails aren’t created equally,” he says. His team developed three priority levels for all corporate e-mails to help employees distinguish between need-to-know, nice-to-know and not-required-to-know content. LEADERSHIP One of the easiest ways to determine success is to do the math. “I’m a big believer in outcomes-based metrics,” says David Walker, president/CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and former Comptroller General of the U.S. and Head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “I don’t care if you’re talking about a government, a company or an individual, you have to have three sets of performance data to know how you’re doing: how you are doing in context of outcome-based standards, how you’re trending and how you’re doing in comparison to your competitors.” That said, perhaps the most overlooked way to define success is to determine your status leadership in your organization and industry; however, current events have proven that leadership and success are often not one-to-one translations. To define this phenomenon, Walker created a whole new term: “laggardship.” “Laggardship is the opposite of leadership. It’s making decisions in crisis mode without consideration to [consequences] and then calling it leadership,” he says. “Leadership is getting things done with and through others; seeing opportunities; identifying risks and capitalizing on opportunities; and leaving things better positioned for the future.” PRN

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