Communicator’s Crisis: When There Is No Buy-in

I have not written anything on this blog for months, taking a good amount time to redefine myself within the communication profession. It has been a very strange experience as the usual enemy causing the communication crisis didn’t appear in the form of an exceptionally difficult stakeholder or bad publicity.

Instead, here I was, full of doubts whether my approach to corporate communications adds any real value to the organisation I work for, whether my own strife for perfection is a mission impossible and whether compromise means failure.

no buy in Communicator’s Crisis: When There Is No Buy inIt is unlikely that I am the only communication professional who has experienced a crisis of faith. And yet, we communicators are trained to announce successes, turn crises into opportunities and bring out new angles in worn-out stories. So when I noticed the first signs of wear and tear in my approach to communication management, my first reaction was to go into denial.

One of the universal truths seemed to escape me: for strategic communication programmes to succeed, top management has to be on board. I thought that if only I worked a little harder, if only I showed how every project I take on becomes a success, my management would recognise the value of strategic communication. In moments of extreme optimism – or frustration – I even thought I could strategize and implement without having them involved.

After a while, I realised that I am not getting anywhere. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong, but my attempts at getting the management’s buy-in were not yielding the results on the scale I was aiming for. I decided that the best way to go about this would be to retreat into the role of an observer for a while (which happens to be a perfectly valid communication research technique). Clearly, I had been operating on a different frequency and I needed to remove myself from the epicentre of internal debates and power games to get a clear picture of where I stood.

For the love of elephants

While working within this organisation, I have formed a belief that my performance would earn me the trust I needed and allow me to tackle the real elephants in the room. The elephants which had grown so big that there was hardly any space for anything else.

After my rather lengthy period of observation I am still not willing to part with this belief, although I did realise that I was too eager and too impatient. It is obviously a tough job to walk a huge elephant out through a tiny opening in the wall, and many are reluctant to embark on an endeavour which may collapse the whole structure.

And while the logistics are important, my real struggle was of emotional nature. Elephants can become one of the most loved, feared and revered pets within the organisation. I have not yet had the time to form such an attachment, so I didn’t vibe with the rest of the company.

So what am I going to do? I am still going to have to bring these elephants down to make substantial improvements in the communication strategy. But I have to devise a gentle method or I will never get that elusive buy-in.

Compromise, consensus, responsibility

Most literature and best practices claim that it takes at least 8 years for a company to develop, adopt and fully incorporate a new culture within an organisation (which must be a top-down initiative). And while I wasn’t advocating for such a huge change, I was certainly very motivated to get rid of a very annoying and counter-productive fragmentation of communication activities. It was a legacy that the company had inherited from the pre-comms era – yes there was one! – and a by-product of  a very special cluster-slash-project-based organisational culture.

This free-flowing working culture has a lot advantages for implementing communications activities, and on a small scale it can be very rewarding. It inspires creativity and activates the participants to invest their best skills and qualities into the project.

On the other hand, this approach can become a hideous hindrance to all progress. Endless meetings and discussions involving representatives of all departments, the tiring search for a consensus which turns into a half-baked compromise and a complete vagueness as to the roles and responsibilities within a project.

There is no surprise that while on a small scale our projects were successful, any large undertaking would not take off.

My observation period got me to realise that I have actually been able to convince a whole lot of people that communication is integral and valuable to any business process. It dawned on me that I no longer needed for fight for my department’s raison d’être. What prevented me from creating a wholesome structure was the fact that communication is still being regarded as everybody’s job. Well, why not? We all know how to use Facebook, and MS Office is all you need to make a nice brochure – start to finish. Personal taste was the beacon in all decision-making processes, leaving very little space for professional communication advice.

My plan of action? The issue of fragmentation is deeply rooted in the culture of this organisation, which is unlikely to change soon. At the same time, as the organisation continues to grow, I will need to reinforce the idea of narrow specialisation, creating more clarity about the mechanisms and objective techniques used in the communication profession. It is a big job, but one worth the effort. Else, there a risk that you will not be able to use or develop your professional expertise and lose yourself in the endless to do list of odd bits and bobs.

Exploring the Role of Communication in Change Management

Ours is a very fluid discipline and its strength is in the ability to adapt and serve the most urgent needs of an organization. It is, therefore, not a surprise that every existing model in the MBA armamentarium discusses the essential role of communication in change management. Every book on change management has a chapter dedicated to communication. Every sound change management strategy includes supporting communication activities.

Communication is versatile and can yield great benefits at all stages of the change process.

This seems like a reason to celebrate. Corporate communication practitioners have been longing for this strategic recognition for years, if not decades, and finally here we are.

And yet, something doesn’t add up in this equation. At least, I don’t experience communication to be a separate part of a sum called “change”. Communication is a process, as is change. These processes must be aligned, as one doesn’t happen without the other.

Communication fuels the organization’s ambition to climb a steep hill of change and it preempts danger when the organization is about to take a sharp corner. Communication is versatile and it can yield great benefits at all stages of the change process.

In this post I am going to explore the role of communication in change management – from tactics to strategy and from being active to being proactive.

The supporting role of communication in change management

The organization is going through a change programme and communication facilitates change by providing a comprehensive support system to all those involved in the process. This function of communication is vital to the life of any organization and today it is also best rehearsed. There are multiple models that define the role of communication in change management and the extent of its contribution within each individual programme.

Models differ in the amount of detail, but many of them are built upon Kurt Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze paradigm, in which change can only be implemented and then maintained if the environment is responsive to it.

According to these models, it would thus be the job of communicators to take on the leadership’s strategic vision and

  • convince the stakeholders that change is necessary and beneficial
  • translate the leadership’s vision into specific messages, tailored to the needs of the stakeholders and communicated through appropriate channels
  • motivate and empower all participants to adopt the behaviour which would successfully transition the organization
  • provide mechanisms for broadband leadership-stakeholder communication
  • provide long-term support for the change programme, by generating measurement and evaluation insights and communicating milestone successes to the stakeholders.

This approach, in its multiple variations, brings very tangible benefits. Y. Yates & S. Vallas, quoting the Change and Communication ROI Study in their article “The Character of Communication” say that organizations that are highly effective at both communication and change management are more than twice as likely to outperform those that are not effective at either.

It would be too optimistic to say that the supportive function of communication in change management is successfully executed in the majority of change programmes – change is risky, unpredictable and cannot be jammed into a simple template. On the positive side, we do have the recognition, many tools, years of accumulative experience and a whole library of best practices to rely on and this significantly increases our chance to succeed.

Communicating to change

There is a lot of chatter in the communication ether these days with many saying that the role of communication in change management holds much more potential than described above. Various LinkedIn groups regularly raise the issue, pointing to the fact that communicators are strategically placed to resolve various organizational problems and inspire change.

This potential is best realized when the organization’s leadership acknowledges the need for change but lacks insights into the root of the problem. Here, communicators come to rescue with their research, insights and situation analysis – they break down the vision of the leadership into specific objectives, talk to the people on the floor (or any other relevant stakeholder group) and identify that elusive gap. This gap can be anything that prevents the vision from being translated into practice – from misinterpretation, conflicting messaging to the lack of support mechanism.

Jim Shaffer, IABC Fellow and author of Leadership Solution calls this process “communication to change”. In his article “Taking the Wheel” for the April-May 2011 issue of Communication World he argues that “managing communication to change is a proactive approach, as it correctly assumes that communication breakdowns cause people to do things that hurt performance.” He then goes on to describe a relatively traditional mix of communication tactics which enable communicators to deal with the gap and implement the change.

Communicating about change vs. communicating to change – what’s the difference? It is subtle but important. In the first case we broadcast the leadership’s vision of change and make it relevant/applicable for everybody and everything. In the second case we help to shape this vision by treating communication as an inseparable element of all processes within an organization, regardless of its core business.

Advocating change

zenlight Exploring the Role of Communication in Change ManagementI wonder if we can take this discussion even further. Communication practitioners, if wholeheartedly involved in the life of the organization, are in the unique position to identify and bring attention to organizational bottlenecks. Often involved at an interdepartmental level, we are usually the first to spot inconsistencies in the way organizational strategy is translated and practiced internally as well as perceived from the outside. In an ideal situation, one that is highly conducive to proactive behaviour, communicators could be excellent advocates for change.

Would this be the ultimate marriage of communication and business strategy: communicators with their audits, research and analyses gathering intelligence and shedding light on issues where change is due? Perhaps this picture is slightly utopic, but not entirely unrealistic.

I can already see elements of this in my work, and I can imagine that I am not the only one thinking and acting along these lines.

Communication Objectives: Why Bother?

Nearly every project within an organization must be communicated at one point or another. Interestingly enough, few companies set communication objectives for individual projects.

“Let’s just skip this part – we have all our project objectives listed here, that’s kinda like the same thing”, isn’t it?”

Well, it isn’t, unless we are talking about pure and undiluted communication projects, which are rare, considering the supportive function of communications within an organization.

Where the action is

Sally J. Patterson and Janel M. Radke make a clear distinction between project and communication objectives in their work Strategic Communication for Non-Profit Organizations. They point out that while the two include similar measures on behalf of an organization, communication objectives are solely geared to elicit a desired action or response from the target audience.

From my personal experience, the best way to check if you are not confusing the two is to ask yourself two questions:

1. “What will happen as a result of this project?” – “We will have a brand new intranet”

This would be a project objective.

2. “What will happen as a result of communicating about this project?” – “The employees will know about it, will know how to use it and will feel very happy about having it.”

This would be a communication objective of the project.

It is a simple and yet effective way to review the objectives set within the project. Whenever I am utterly confused – which can happen after a long brainstorm meeting with the whole project team – the little formula above makes it all nice and clear.

A flight of stairs

Although very useful in many every-day working situations, my simple approach to communication objectives will not meet the needs of a complex project or strategy. In such situations, I refer to the idea of Paolo Mefalopulos and Chris Kamlongera. In their book Participatory Communication Strategy Design, the authors argue that the mechanisms necessary for eliciting a response are comparable to those used in the process of innovation adoption.

new blog post Communication Objectives: Why Bother?In their Adoption Ladder model, Mefalopulos and Kamlongera identify six types of response: awareness, interest, comprehension, attitude, legitimation and practice. This model implies a hierarchical relationship – one cannot expect to elicit change in practice without having climbed all the previous steps of this steep staircase.

I like to use this model in my work, and while it may seem a little too academic for most projects, it can, in fact, be easily implemented. I don’t worry too much about skipping or not skipping the steps – it comes naturally, as the logic behind the model is actually common sense. People cannot be interested in something, if they are not aware of its existence. Similarly, they will not bother to form an opinion on an issue, if it doesn’t spark their interest. And so on.

Why I like this model so much is because it allows me to formulate the most appropriate communication tactics and pick the right set of communication tools. I use the table below to figure out the most appropriate communication objectives for each step of the strategy.

Here is how the Adoption Ladder model works for me in practice.

The Model Communication ObjectiveResult
AwarenessTo inform ...The audience knows about
InterestTo engage...The audience is interested
ComprehensionTo explain...The audience understands
AttitudeTo convince...The audience feels/believes
LegitimationTo commit...The audience shares ownership/relates to...
PracticeTo empower...The audience know how to...

So why bother with communication objectives?

I personally believe that it is great practice to include communication objectives into every project plan, big or small, even if the project does not accommodate for a communicator in the implementation team. Most organizational projects are process or product oriented and their managers tend to focus on delivering these end results.

If a communication plan is included into the project, it will often list a set of tools and channels through which communication will take place – websites, brochures and Facebook pages – and will rarely describe the desired results of communication. If we don’t know what we want from the audience, our communication efforts are likely to make little or no impact at all.

So let me ask you – why bother with the project to start with, if we cannot make it meaningful to the target audience?

(Ok, I admit to having a very strong communicator bias. :))

What is Communication Management?

Scientific and applied literature offer extensive definitions of communication management. Oftentimes these definitions embrace an integrated approach which suggests that a fusion of various communication-related disciplines within a company fall under the responsibility of one team and its manager.

Communication management is defined as a systematic planning and realization of information flow, communication, media development and image-care in a long-term horizon. – P. S. Tripathi, Communication Management

So what is communication management in this new world of integrated disciplines? Internal and corporate communication, marketing, public relations and branding – how do these parts interact with each other to give us more than the sum of their individual contributions?

For me, this alignment of communication disciplines also implies an opportunity to mix and match, to redistribute discipline-bound corporate communication objectives into free-form clusters.

This clustering can be helpful in practical, day-to-day communication management. It serves as a reminder of the intrinsic role corporate communication plays in the life of a company – expressed in actionable concepts, rather than outputs.

what is communication management What is Communication Management?

One for all

The communication department is pretty much useless on its own. It exists to support the life of the organization as a whole and also of its various bits and bobs. There is a downside to this: it can be difficult for communication managers to prove their worth in tangible terms.

On the positive side – and that’s exactly how I see it – communication is a great problem solver. By positioning themselves correctly and by making themselves useful to the top management and various departments, communicators are able to multiply the value of all sorts of organizational efforts.

Being indispensable, in more conventional terms, is a mix of various internal and corporate communication, as well as stakeholder management objectives.

I spy, I spy

Gathering and interpreting intelligence is an essential objective of inspiring communication management. Through research and analysis, we are able to pinpoint the right solution for a whole range of issues. The James Bond in us comes in handy whenever the organization is going through a crisis or change, pursues a branding strategy or a product launch and much more.

Loud and clear

What is communication management without being able to formulate and disperse important organizational messages? We do this a lot in the context of internal and corporate communication; it is also an important component of public relations activities.

Frontline defense

Should an issue or a crisis occur, communication will be there to take the first blow. If communication is managed appropriately, the damage can be softened, diffused or even solved. This crisis communication concept rests on effective stakeholder management, timely internal communication and intelligent PR.

Dress to impress

The woman in me loves all things branding. From visual and linguistic identity to brand values, promises and benefits, dressing a company is one of the most creative and enjoyable aspects of communication. Post-development stage is just as exciting – communicating the brand internally and externally requires a great interdisciplinary effort!

Communication and Change: The Story of 3 Dutch Brands

eacd communication and change Communication and Change: The Story of 3 Dutch Brands

Debating change and communication: Davis Brilleslijper, Nanne Bos and Pieter Schaffels

Communication is essential in the time of change – we know that already. This is what we read in all professional literature on the subject, this is what they tell us at school. Nonetheless, this happy marriage of communication and change continues to invite discussion, debates and speculations.

That’s the thing about change: it’s usually unpredictable, rarely expected and almost never wanted. Objectively, organizational change is influenced by a great number of external and internal factors; subjectively, we all experience and deal with change in our own very different ways. This makes for an exciting topic and a difficult one to tame into a single model or action plan.

While models and prêt-à-porter templates certainly have their place in corporate communication, I also strongly believe in the power of story-telling. Learning from the experience of others applies wonderfully to the topic of communication and change management.

Two weeks ago, I attended a regional EACD debate “Organizing Communications and Aligning with Other Functions in Times of Disruptive Change”, which took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The event revolved around 3 case-studies presented by corporate communicators from three NL-based companies. Here are several stories plus a couple of lessons which I took home from the debate.

Ordina: Make it brutally honest

In the opening case-study, Pieter Schaffels, Director Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Ordina, talked about his company’s quest for survival amidst severe external and internal crises. Ordina’s rise to incredible heights in the mid-1990s and their near-fall in the last few years led the company to take on an extensive change programme.

Ordina refers to itself as a Benelux-wide knowledge provider, which offers a combined IT/business process expertise to a range of stakeholders.

Schaffels, who has been with Ordina since the crisis hit, said that while “it is quite typical for companies to shut down all communications when they are in trouble” his team took the opposite course of action. The company launched intensive restructuring and refinancing programmes, which, from the communications point of view, represented an opportunity to regain trust and rebuild reputation.

Communications is neither the privilege nor the task of a communications department.

Schaffels acknowledged that choosing refinancing as the central theme for communication may have been unusual, but in the circumstances it was the most effective and the shortest path to regaining trust. “We had to be brutally honest with ourselves, our stakeholders and our employees,” he said, “It definitely paid off to be authentic, and we are now ready for the future.”

Ordina’s communication and change strategy included a range of activities: pre-visiting large shareholders, press and analyst conferences, investor road shows, stakeholder dialogue events and more. Schaffels also highlighted a long list of lessons.

For me personally, the most insightful was his reminder that communications is neither the privilege nor the task of the communications department. We often forget that, as it does go somewhat against the grain, considering all this effort that we, communicators, have put into consolidating our weight and strength within the corporate setting.

Nationale Nederlanden: Brand as a Mr. Guide

The guiding role of communications – as opposed to that of control – was also well illustrated in the presentation by Nanne Bos, Director Brand & Reputation Management at Nationale Nederlanden, a Dutch insurance company.

Bos made a case for the wide-scale brand transformation strategy that his company has been undergoing in the last several years, pointing out that rebranding in the times of Europe-wide crisis is a double-edged sword. Along with the usual dangers of initiating a change in a shaky environment when all the stakeholders are looking for is stability, there are also a number of hidden opportunities. “This instability reveals the bare truth about the brand, which communicators can use to build a rebranding programme based on very valuable insights.”

“We found out that Nationale Nederlanden was a trusted household brand, but at the same time very stuffy and old-fashioned,” said Bos. “The brand was poorly maintained, and there has been no major revision since the late 1960s.”

Start with a central programme and then let go.

In some detail Bos covered the rebranding process, which included extensive research and follow-up. He said that Nationale Nederlanden chose to build a brand which provided vision and behavioural guidance to its internal audiences. According to him, this model stimulates a better financial performance, by taking into account the company’s strategy, organisation and processes.

In his take-home messages, Bos echoed the previous speaker saying that rebranding has to be planned and executed by the communications, but that the actual implementation must be left to the organization. “Start with a central programme and then let go,” he said.

Delta Lloyd: everything that can matter, will matter

For the third case-study of the debate, David Brilleslijper, Director Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Delta Lloyd’s Group, took the floor.

His talk on the challenges of a company going through the process of initial public offering revealed a four-stage communication strategy. It included the kick-off during the official IPO preparations, first marketing efforts at the time when the IPO ambitions are made public, full-fletched marketing in the period around the IPO date announcement, and the equally challenging follow-up in the new environment as a listed company.

Brilleslijper said that one of the keys to successful transition and stakeholder management is to get communication involved in the process as early as possible.

“In this environment of market sensitivity, the company finds itself under an omnipresent magnifying glass, therefore everything that can matter – will matter,” he stressed. “Communications have to co-write the equity story, as we are the ones who have to translate it to our many stakeholders in a consistent, helpful and transparent manner.”