OP-ED: PR must hone its strategy to secure a seat at the table

The other night, I was watching The Wizard of Oz with my two girls. When we came to the scene where the curtain is drawn back and the Wizard is revealed, I got to thinking about our industry.

The other night, I was watching The Wizard of Oz with my two girls. When we came to the scene where the curtain is drawn back and the Wizard is revealed, I got to thinking about our industry.

I've heard complaints about communications not having a seat at the table. Yet, we are a group that has consistently prided ourselves on being the "man behind the curtain," that person pulling levers to make "magic" happen in our organizations. It can be a captivating image - altruistic, in a sense (i.e., "We don't need to be in front. We just want to do good work"). But it strikes me as a timid approach to our life's work, for the curtain stands between us and real risk-taking, sectioning us off from our potential as true leaders.

I've seen symptoms of it all too often, such as the comment: "We can't communicate the strategy because the company does not have one." This willingness to hand over our authority as business leaders is frustrating. If we continue to wait for other leaders to figure out where the company needs to go, we don't deserve a seat at the table.

My question: Why not help create the strategy? Communications pros have the right competencies and skills to take a leadership role in developing the business strategy. Why then do we so often position ourselves as service providers rather than business leaders?

I think the answer may have something to do with how we define strategy.

Strategy isn't a management consultant's binder collecting dust on a CEO's bookshelf. It's not a plan that's "done" when the steps are completed. Strategy is a way of thinking about our customers, our company, and our future. It's a daily mission, a way of thinking, a way of life. Its success is determined every day, by every employee, with every customer. In this sense, strategy is clearly in the purview of communications, for we are in the business of shaping perceptions about the company and aligning behaviors to deliver results.

Successful leaders don't wait to be told what to do. Instead, they think about how to run a better business. I've witnessed four common approaches communications leaders take in developing strategy:

Articulating vision and direction. Since strategy is defined by what an organization does every day, every company has a strategy. At times, the direction is clear or just needs more compelling articulation. Other times, we need to connect the dots on how the company allocates its resources to create the overall picture and story. Either way, leaders step up to fill the void.

Connecting to results that matter. Strategy describes what the organization is doing to obtain its goals. Leaders in our profession start with an understanding of what results they're going to affect, rather than what activities they're going to conduct. They create an urgent connection between what the business needs to accomplish and what employees need to deliver.

Asking the tough questions. Communications leaders explore the assumptions built into business plans, often finding that the plan will require different behavior (e.g., flawless execution, breakthrough thinking, etc.). They think through these assumptions and their impact, performance risks, and mitigation strategies. Oftentimes, they light the path to achieving results previously thought impossible.

Creating a path with dedicated followers. Results are the product of employee behavior. Employees don't behave arbitrarily. Instead, their behavior is shaped by beliefs coming from their individual experience. The talent to help employees understand what's being asked of them, provide them with the information they need to succeed, and give them a reason to care is at the heart of our profession. Without dedicated followers, a strategy remains dead in that dusty binder.

I'm not saying it's an easy road. In my experience, leadership can be a daunting concept for people who have thought of themselves as "service providers." Taking ownership of the business strategy raises the stakes and creates accountability for its successes and failures. We can all name several in our field who have done a phenomenal job leading their organizations and our industry. We just need more of them. Communications pros need to take the risk, draw back the curtain, and reveal the true leader within. Only then will we have earned our seat at the table.

  • Maril MacDonald is CEO of Matha MacDonald.

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