The Corporate Communicator’s Lot Is Not an Easy One James L. HortonWhat does corporate communications do? That responsible for assisting the CEO and Board withseems to be a dumb question, but it isn’t. Not the primary strategic message but indirectlyreally. The job is a jumble of responsibilities and responsible for other key audiences.coordination that does not fit easily into anorganization chart. In fact, the job is not easy to This creates a problem. The primary message isunderstand, even within a matrix of translated into secondary messages needed toresponsibilities. implement strategy. The secondary messages are what target audiences see most. While theCorporate communications is a staff function that corporate communicator has firm responsibility formelds message creation with media responsibility, the primary message, other corporatecoordination of message and media and media departments control secondary messages.production. But how it does that varies bycompany and CEO. Executives in charge of corporate departments are the primary communicators to their discreteThe communications matrix (p. 6ff) shows audiences. The Corporate Communicator advisesaudience communications responsibility in a them and only sometimes has direct responsibilitytypical company. The CEO and Board have for communicating to customers, employees,overall responsibility for strategy and shareholders, etc.communications of strategy. Senior executivesreporting to the CEO implement strategy with Unfortunately, in most organizations, secondaryinternal and external audiences essential to the messages tend to veer over time from thesurvival and success of the organization. The strategic message. They blur the strategichead of corporate communications is directly message or make it implicit. Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 1
radiate across an organization in many ways.In corporate communications, the strategic Sometimes they flow down the chain of commandmessage, an organization’s reason for existence, smoothly from CEO to clerk. But they also riseis either implicit or explicit. Executives and vertically to the CEO with no reference to adjacentemployees are supposed to know why they do departments, or they spill horizontally to adjacentwhat they do, and the CEO reminds them lest they departments and never rise to the top, or theyforget and veer from the mission. Unfortunately, it flood in all different directions. In the process, theis easy to veer off course. All organizations suffer meaning of a message can be distorted or lost.from entropy, a loss of energy tending to disorderand chaos. For example, a business opportunity is disassembled as it moves through theIn most organizations, message blurring does not organization. One department looks at numbersproduce immediate impact. Messages are close while another examines concepts, a thirdenough that an organization and audience examines the audience, a fourth the logistics, aunderstand what a business is about. And, the fifth, the regulatory aspects and so one. Thestrategic message is often integrated with the nature of disassembly is such that an opportunityproduct and service. can lose importance and value while an organization digests it. Communications facilitateDamage occurs when an organization needs to evaluation of an opportunity, remind individuals ofadapt, when messages sent by each department a need for speed and maintain a holistic view of anare no longer apt for audiences and when an opportunity that lies in pieces around a company.audience’s embedded expectation must change inface of facts. Then, secondary messages that blur The role of the Corporate Communicator is to helpthe strategic message or use it implicitly become the CEO project the holistic view throughout thetraps that bog organizations and slow execution. company, to keep executives focused on strategy lest they get sidetracked into irrelevant orCEOs place high value on execution and speed. unprofitable activity. The corporate communicatorThey want flexible, adaptable organizations that helps make the implicit explicit through connectingmove quickly to capitalize on opportunities before dots between secondary and primary messages.competitors do. They rely on their formal and The corporate communicator is part of the CEO’sinformal communications networks to guide the communication machinery to guide employees,organization into new directions. But customers, shareholders, regulators and otherscommunications are not simple and messages into a proper view of the company and its mission. Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 2
But this is not all that corporate communications integration of messages then suffer the torment ofdoes. watching advice being ignored.Corporate communications serves the CEO and The matrix shows why this is so. The corporatesenior executives in various ways. Sometimes the communicator is in a third or fourth position on thedepartment drives a message, sometimes it chart except in dealing with media. Hence, it iscoordinates, sometimes it facilitates in developing easy for executives to dispatch the corporateand executing media and sometimes it is a communicator as a media relations person whofeedback point for target audiences. Corporate provides production support, if executives choosecommunications does not have a function like a to use it. It is easier still to subordinate thefactory in which components enter at one end and corporate communicator just to one role amongautos leave at the other. It is closer to grease that several the communicator should be performing –keeps machinery work smoothly or regulators to for example, working with business media. It isprevent machines from stamping parts out of endemic that corporate communication’s functiontolerance. But it is focused on the strategic is fractioned with departments taking a portion ofmessage, the why of the organization’s existence the job and cutting it from corporateand it supports message execution through its communications – e.g., marketing controlsproduction facilities, if it has them. Consistent with marketing publicity and Investor Relations controlsits amorphous function, corporate communications shareholder communications while Informationalso serves as the primary contact for some Technology controls the Web page. Further, theaudiences, such as reporters and editors who corporate communications leader is often at abroadcast the company’s intents, successes and lower rank than heads of other departments andfailures. open to treatment as a subordinate of multiple bosses, all of whom want their needs served now.The job of a corporate communications executive,then, is equally unclear. Department executives The result over time is what a CEO should notare justified in asking what a corporation want – dilution of the primary message in favor ofcommunications leader is doing at their meetings. secondary messages. Marketing focuses onMoreover, when a CEO fails to support the selling and ignores shareholders. Investorcorporate communications leader, the job is well relations focuses on shareholders and forgetsnigh impossible. There is nothing a corporate operations. Operations focuses on manufacturingcommunications leader can do but plead for and logistics and pays no attention to Human Resources. Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 3
Corporate communications is only as strong as a happens, the corporate communicator is more of aCEO allows it to be, and the corporate barrier than facilitator internally. Other executivescommunications leader gains strength in direct are left to fend for themselves and theirproportion to personal credibility the leader has communications needs.with the CEO. There are more ways for corporateIf the CEO has high regard for the head of communications to be misapplied than usedcorporate communications, the leader can become correctly. And, that, in my experience is the case.a communications adviser and counselor across Alternate uses of corporate communications arethe organization. Departmental and division more the rule than exception. Because of this,executives dare not ignore the head of corporate one should ask whether corporatecommunications and more likely, they welcome communications should be dispensed with as athe leader because he or she provides insight into function. Would it not be better to establish ahow messages are likely to be received internally communications structure that accounts more forand externally. the reality of an organization than the desire of corporate communications leadership? ThisIf a CEO has little regard for the head of corporate appears to be have been done in somecommunications, the leader has no place at organizations, but there are ramifications inmeetings in which the future of the organization changing structure.and its opportunities are decided. The corporatecommunicator becomes little more than a media For one, the CEO works harder to maintain therelations person and functionary who supports strategic vision throughout the organization. Thedepartmental requests for writing, media burden is on the CEO to review what divisions andplacement, events, promotions and multimedia departments are communicating and to rein themproduction. in. Secondly, there is diminution of the strategic message over time by comparison to secondaryThe same thing happens if a CEO considers the messages in which departments have vestedcorporate communications leader to be a personal interest. The CEO works harder to fight entropy.publicist for the CEO. The head of corporate Third, there is a loss of insight into whatcommunications becomes an aide-de-camp for departments are doing as they communicate. Aarranging speeches, coordinating interviews, corporate communicator, when used well,writing remarks and advising the CEO how to provides eyes and ears for the CEO onrespond to crises and opportunities. When this communications matters and a warning device for Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 4
the CEO when departments stray off message. watching someone else placed between theFourth, there is loss of practical communications corporate communicator and the CEO. Thatadvice to departments, which departments need in executive is often from Human Resources ortheir work. Fifth, there is loss of proportion about administration.communications. Executives are trained incontrol. They control operations, messages and Corporate communications is not a business formedia. But unfortunately, communications results the fainthearted.are often uncontrolled because they go tounpredictable humans who understand messagesin different ways. A corporate communicator A Note on the Matrix.understands this well – or should. The matrix starts with the message receiver andIn some organizations, corporate communications works down through message-sender, messagesis a place to dump communications functions no and media. Normally, a diagram would start withone wants or knows what to do with. It is like executives, the message-senders, and work downHuman Resources, a repository for functions no to message receivers. This reversed presentationone else wants. Because of this broad recognizes that communications get others to doresponsibility and amorphous mission, corporate something and unless they do it, there is nocommunications is destined in some organizations organization. Customers must buy goods andto live in shadows – used but not appreciated and services. Employees must make and deliver them.dismissed when there is no perceived need for it. Owners must risk capital with an expectation ofThe corporate communications practitioner suitable return. Regulators must trust a companyaccepts this as a condition of the job and works to enough to permit it to exist.show the value of what the department does. Reversing the matrix and putting the audience atThe reward for good internal merchandising of the the top recognizes what is often forgotten infunction’s value is an increase in credibility with organizations. They do not exist for andthe CEO and senior executives. The punishment communicate to themselves. They exist for whatfor failure to show what one has done lately for the they achieve outside of themselves.CEO is dismissal from the job or the humiliation of Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 5
Communications MatrixAudiences Overall Customers Owners Segments Loyal Occasional Potential Former Competitors Buy-side Sell-side Individual InternalDirect Responsibility CEO & Board Marketing/Sales CFOPrimary Message/Strategy CEO & Board CEO CEOSecondary Messages Corp Com Marketing/Sales CFOMessage transmission Corp Com Marketing/Sales Investor RelationsPrimary/2dry messagecoord Corp Com Corp ComInternal Media Support Corp Com Corp Com Corp Com Production Production Production Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 6
Audiences Internal/Employees Govt/Regulators Customer- Industry CEO Board Mngrl Supervisors facing Support Retirees Federal State Local Intl AssocDirect Responsibility Human Resources Govt Afffairs/LegalPrimary Message/Strategy CEO CEOSecondary Messages Human Resources Govt Afffairs/LegalMessage transmission Human Resources Govt Afffairs/LegalPrimary/2dry messagecoord Corp Com Corp ComInternal Media Support Corp Com Corp Com Production Production Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 7
InternalAudiences Communications Influentials 3rd-party Network Databases Operations Media TestersDirect Responsibility CIO Operations Corp Com DevelopersPrimary Message/Strategy CEO CEO CEO CEO Corp.Secondary Messages CIO Operations Comm Developers Corp. Corp.Message transmission CIO Operations Comm Comm Corp. Corp.Primary/2dry message coord Corp Com Corp Com Comm CommInternal Media Support Corp Com Corp Com Corp Com Corp Com Production Production Production Production ###James L. Horton, founder of online-pr.com, has more than 25 years of experience in the PR business. Copyright, 2004, James L. Horton 8
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