Balance management with lobbying to optimize the comms function

In conducting research recently on best practices in corporate communications functions, one thing in particular struck me.

In conducting research recently on best practices in corporate communications functions, one thing in particular struck me.

In decentralized organizations, the best chief communications officers aspire to have large chunks of their time allocated for… nothing.

Let me explain.

The larger the enterprise, particularly when decentralized and matrixed, the more complex, the more players there are, the more issues exist, etc. As such, the CCO is required to do all those things with which most of us are familiar: CEO counselor, communications strategist, leader of a large organization, responsible for talent management, and so on. And then some.

However, the best CCOs recognize that their value to their companies, beyond the strategist role, is to find time to build important relationships with the other most senior executives in the organization and to advise and persuade on continually investing in and upgrading the communications talent and activity housed within that business function.

The single greatest criticism I regularly hear among CEOs and presidents of business units is that the communications staff, under the CCO, is too tactical. Communications staffers are often seen as quite competent in executing plans to support the businesses, but are rarely seen as strategists at the proverbial table.

Often, corporate structures inadvertently facilitate this problem. Senior communications folks are often burdened with administrative or management responsibilities that are minimally client-facing. Ask any senior agency executive: that is never a good idea. 

When this happens, as I've seen at several companies, it's often time to reassess the structure. The best people ought to be on the highest-priority work of the corporation and regularly interfacing with their most senior internal clients – not simply managing lots of tasks.

But other times, these CEOs and business unit presidents are right with their criticism: the comms staffers are not yet qualified to be strategists. That may not be an indictment of the individuals; it's likely more an indictment of hiring practices.

The president of a $5 billion business unit would go out tomorrow and hire a senior-level CCO if his or her unit was spun off as an independent company.  Leaders of such large entities deserve smart, serious, seasoned talent. 

In decentralized companies, these leaders often foot the bill for their communications team. So, while they may complain (when asked) that their comms people aren't as business-savvy and strategy-focused as they'd like, these leaders are often not equipped or are simply too busy to focus on how to make such an improvement. 

This is why we're seeing more top CCOs spend time with these business unit presidents, spotlighting the potential impact communications can have and occasionally finding creative ways to deliver the desired upgrade. 

(Case in point: I know one CCO who agreed to carry the salary of a new top-level comms staffer for the business unit for one year. The thinking, which proved accurate: just get the more senior talent in place and the value of this investment will quickly become clear to the line of business.)

However you achieve your goals, the insight is clear: the best, most senior communications executives are constantly interfacing with their most senior internal clients and educating, advising, cajoling, persuading, and helping to achieve the outcomes you know are possible when your function is truly optimized.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a management and digital consulting firm. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com.

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