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.
It 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.