When communicators must become change agents

Lately, it seems, a lot of companies are reinventing and redefining their marketplace positions.

Lately, it seems, a lot of companies are reinventing and redefining their marketplace positions.  Suddenly, a major manufacturer tags itself as a leading global technology company.  A credit-card issuer touts its “financial freedom” customer experience.

As communicators, we each have taken that urgent call from a client or the client's CEO requesting that we develop a strategy to support a corporate sea change or brand transformation.  In the agency world, we relish this type of challenge. Such meaty assignments require our best thinking, creativity, and a real partnership with our clients. But we also know that a true transformation is beset with pitfalls, many that fall outside of our remit.

Before the team puts pen to paper or cranks out that 100-slide PowerPoint deck, ensure that you and your client considers  if senior management is aligned and poised to lead the transformation from the front lines.  If they aren't, fractured interests and lack of unity from the CEO on down ultimately will kill any well-intentioned efforts led by the communication and marketing group. 

I often hear, “We want to be like Apple—a game changer.”  Recognize one truth: Only Apple can be Apple. Aspiring to climb to greater heights is worthy, but it also must be realistic and grounded. 

For most companies, a transformation represents a multi-year journey marked by a long slog uphill.

Transformation often requires a hard right turn to your corporate culture, which is impossible to do in the short term.  You must establish a fresh context for understanding and embracing the new vision. And you need to translate how that affects each employee's day-to-day job, recognizing the behavioral changes required to contribute and support the vision.  This means permitting the workforce to find new ways of doing things and also allowing (and celebrating) near-term failure for long-term gain.          

Rigorously review the products, services, policies, and legislative issues that must go hand-in-hand with the transformation. While an agency partner and communication team can provide important counsel, this is where rubber hits the road with the executive suite and operations leads. 

This is an ideal time to determine the company's reputation equity among key stakeholders.  Where do the company's real strengths lie?  What weaknesses must be addressed?  Do we have what it takes to play in the space where we are headed?

Also take the opportunity to assess the client's communications team. A retailer, for instance, can't move from a fundamental sales model to a “best in class” customer service organization without employing the right internal talent and infrastructure. 

One other thing is critical: Don't forget to test a new narrative. Once you've opted for the narrative that clearly articulates the raison d'être for the transformation, test it in real time with stakeholders.  Much like political polling, gather them in a focus group setting and have them react to your various messages.  They will tell you if they're believable or not, if they buy into the vision, and where you have permission to say “watch this space, more to come.”

Undoubtedly, you and senior management will discover – and fairly quickly – that transformations prove chaotic.  But remember, they are usually necessary.  Intel's former CEO Andy Grove knew that.  He transformed Intel from a memory chip manufacturer into a dominant producer of microprocessors.  In the process, he said this about business change: “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change.  Values have to change.  The sum total of those changes is transformation.”  

Kevin Cook is EVP, MD of Edelman's corporate affairs practice in Chicago.

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