To centralize or decentralize communications?

For 20 years I've watched organizations (corporations and agencies) wrestle with a near constant tension between centralizing and decentralizing PR teams.

For 20 years I've watched organizations (corporations and agencies) wrestle with a near constant tension between centralizing and decentralizing PR teams, not to mention business development responsibilities and even decision-making authority. As a self-declared student of pendulum swings in business, this one fascinates me.

In some cases, the tension increases due to leadership changes. For example, a new director of communications at a highly decentralized company may have hailed from another business where communications control and decision-making authority were completely centralized — product teams channeled up through the corporate function and were beholden to corporate leaders for direction and guidance both in the moment and over the long term.  

What is the right foot forward in this situation? In many cases, fearless directors of communications would muscle their new organization into what they know best, which in this example is centralized communications. Will this take the new organization by storm and create a completely new and more productive rhythm of business? Possible, but not likely. Human nature tells us that resistance is certain (if futile).

I would argue that the best course forward is the one that leverages the leadership strengths (or mitigates the leadership weaknesses) of the existing organization. If there are strong leaders in the business units, decentralize. If you have an extremely engaged and communications-focused CEO, centralized might be the path of least resistance and highest productivity.

Perhaps the pendulum swing is inevitable, reflective of business evolution and even budget. But if we follow the leaders, we'll weather the swing and organize in a way that taps the organic strength of the organization.

Jenny Moede is EVP, North America at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

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