Today's comms pro must offer new solutions for old problems

When Mike Warren became CEO of Alagasco, the largest natural gas utility in Alabama, he wanted the company to be more innovative.

When Mike Warren became CEO of Alagasco, the largest natural gas utility in Alabama, he wanted the company to be more innovative.

To get his point across, he bought a rubber stamp shaped like a dinosaur. When work came across his desk that represented "old thinking," he stamped it and sent it back to the owner.

Communication Solutions newsletter recounts this story as a creative way to get employees to embrace new ideas. While harsh, it addresses an issue facing organizations and top communicators: How to bring new solutions to old problems?

Few industries operate the way they did five years ago. Many won't operate the way they do today two years from now. Globalization, economic shifts, consumer attitudes, and activism are just a few of the factors wreaking havoc on business models.

Communications jobs are changing, too. The greatest value isn't being a spinmeister who takes whatever comes and makes it sing. A communicator's strongest position is to be a business partner who brings creative solutions to advance organizational goals.
The Harvard Business Review lists emergence of user-centered innovation as one of its 20 breakthrough ideas for 2007. Consumers are now inventing what they want without waiting for the experts. A greater opportunity exists for communicators to bring the outside in. Get ideas from the target audience rather than the traditional heavy reliance on internal voices.

Consider that what feels old may be new. Think for five seconds and the list of day-in, day-out PR activities gets long. But resist the temptation to assume that each familiar situation requires the usual action.

When it was under fire for high-caloric food (the core of its business), McDonald's chose not to aggressively defend its reputation. Instead, recognizing that the same working mom who saw fast food as a God-send was now part of the health-food revolution, it added healthier food to its menu. The Washington Post notes that this action is a major contributor to McDonald's having its most profitable years in three decades. The root causes of situations do change, even though the problems have been around forever.

Dr. Phil remarks that no matter how thin the coin, it still has two sides. It's important to see and be innovative. The flip side of the coin is getting senior management to adopt the new ideas.

An executive once offered "the dirty sock" rule as a key to advancing ideas. Mom makes Johnny clean his room. Johnny does it. Mom always points out something that's still wrong. Johnny realizes that Mom wants to be a partner in the chore. Johnny purposely leaves a dirty sock. Mom points it out and leaves the room. Job done. The point isn't manipulation. It's that new ideas are usually more successful with executive input.

Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at

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