Much more than just 'communicators'

Communications is much more than writing and producing information. We have to be "strategic" in everything we do.

There is a much stronger expectation of the role of communications than a decade ago. We are to do more than create, write, or produce communication materials, but to also to serve as an adviser and strategic partner. We need to contribute meaningful feedback on important business decisions and show how they may impact key stakeholders or the public’s perception.

Although I was well prepared for my first job out of college, I didn’t realize the many twists and turns my career would take over the next 20-plus years and how communications truly plays a key role in everyday business. Without going back for my graduate degree, career changes that led me into corporate communications, and a commitment to growth and learning, I would not be prepared for the job I have.

To do our jobs effectively, communicators must carefully think about implications of our written word and its impact on our internal and external audiences. Complex or high-stakes issues require impeccable judgment, good instincts, and decisions based on experiences that best prepare us to minimize negative publicity, build trust and transparency and protect reputations. We have become and must act like a business partner.

My daughter is a freshman in college studying journalism. Her major is "strategic communications." She will soon declare a minor in finance and marketing and work toward getting certificates in social media and liberal arts. She has an internship lined up for this summer, has joined PRSSA and a school-based PR firm to help local businesses promote their offerings, and is an opinion writer for the college newspaper. She will be more prepared than I was entering the work world, given the emphasis on strategy and communications linked to business.

According to the Princeton Review, required communications skills include a need for expertise in media and marketing, an ability to be a persuasive public speaker, and to understand qualitative and quantitative research. Now more than ever, communications executives are heavily relied upon and are expected to offer more insight and guidance when given their seat at the table.

In our role, we can see the potential downsides or unintended consequences of business decisions. At the same time, we are qualified to see additional benefits to good decisions that can help. For example, when we created more green space on our campus and removed a number of fences, the community perception was that we were more welcoming to our neighbors.

Another example occurred a few years ago, when we closed a hospital in a fairly poor neighborhood near Cleveland. There was quite an uproar in the community as we were seen as taking away a critical resource. During the process, we learned that many of our patients didn’t have cars for transportation to and from our other hospitals. We also learned that it would take an individual 60 bus stops to get from their home to one of those hospitals. Communications drove the decision to offer free shuttle services to help patients get to their doctor. This service minimized the negative community perception and demonstrated that we wanted to be sure they had easy access to continued healthcare services.

Strong communicators can see the forest beyond the trees and can be instrumental in helping protect and build organizational reputation in ways beyond the written word. We have an obligation to go above and beyond to bring our perspective to the table and contribute in a way that helps protect our organizational integrity with transparency and trust among our key stakeholders.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at the Cleveland Clinic. She can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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