Navigating big organizations, without going bust

Stepping into a chief communications job at a major corporation, government, or nonprofit institution poses a unique set of challenges to any executive who wants to create a sustainable, high-impact program in which communications are respected, understood, and accorded priority.

Stepping into a chief communications job at a major corporation, government, or nonprofit institution poses a unique set of challenges to any executive who wants to create a sustainable, high-impact program in which communications are respected, understood, and accorded priority.    

Over this three-part series, I'll offer a number of recommendations for navigating to success. Two steps should be taken early on.

First, assemble a deliberately small group of high level, smart thinkers for informal discussions about your organization's greatest potential for communications. That group can clarify issues, identify high-value opportunities and potential roadblocks, and create early buy-in.  

While a “newbie” at the University of California, Los Angeles, I orchestrated two such meetings, which included the chancellor and other influential senior administrators, outside PR, advertising and opinion research counsel, key donors, and alumni. The professional outsiders were a critical resource; they could say some things that needed to be heard and understood.  

My role, then and throughout my tenure, toggled between executive, diplomat, and advocate for communications. I had to listen, probe, push, prepare, and educate in order to create early buy-in and interest. And I emerged from these meetings with political intelligence and enhanced status.

Next, integrate research with action plans that are evaluated and marketed as you begin to roll out new initiatives. Often, communications officers conduct benchmark research that builds input, interest, and excitement. But the resulting reports end up on a shelf. The key here is to catalyze enthusiasm with deliberate action.

A colleague who runs communications at a major international arts institution started his tenure engaging in leadership discussions, where he identified an interest in diversifying communications. He then tailored his research to diversify and rejuvenate existing earned media and advertising strategies, to lasting effect.

Conversely, I witnessed a needed engagement initiative at a major public university system collapse because a massive statewide input process was not linked to an action plan. That effort lost momentum and fizzled, critics filled the vacuum, and subsequent proposals floundered.

The next two steps discussed here will help get you moving on the right path. In my next blog, I'll address another key component of success – championing your creative team.

Lokman is principal of Lawrence H. Lokman Strategic Communications. He has worked in strategic communications positions within and as counsel to major nonprofit, government, and industry organizations.

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