Who Owns Communications? Tight Budgets and Digital Media Pose New Challenges for Business

In this challenging economic environment, many businesses are consolidating essential functions, including communications. This has proven to be a net positive for many companies, but it can also exacerbate the vexing question of “Who owns communications?” in many organizations.

Public affairs, investor relations, public relations, external affairs, marketing, internal communications, corporate communications, and other departments and functions at companies all own a responsibility for communicating the business principles, mission, and key accomplishments of their organization. Yet determining the rules of the road for who communicates when – such as when a crisis strikes, a social media boomlet challenges the reputation of a company, or even daily communications – is more challenging than ever in this age of tighter budgets and new media applications and platforms.

As addressed in a recent webinar hosted by the Public Affairs Council in Washington, DC, these themes reflect an organizational management debate which has as many possible solutions as there are organizations wrestling with the problem.

Recently, PR Week conducted a survey of corporate communicators that reveals the many challenges that today’s corporate communicators face. When asked about their top “pain points,” those surveyed reported budget constraints (52%), keeping up with new media innovation (48%), and managing internal silos/departmental divisions (43%) as the greatest challenges they face in their organizations.

Furthermore, the classic silo approach to communications in this economic environment fuels a fracturing of the ownership of communications in organizations, as noted by the co-author of the CEO.com survey, Hill and Knowlton President Dan Bartlett, who said, “…you (typically) have five different senior people, all with public facing responsibilities. I can’t tell you how siloed and non-communicative they are.”

There are benefits to consolidation in a cost-constrained environment, according to the survey. As the communications function is centralized and flattened, some companies are creating greater efficiencies by training staff to have more cross-functional capabilities than before, thereby doing more with less. One such example is Southwest Airlines that recently consolidated communications into a corporate department with 90 staff people. The results include the merger of functionality within roles and new sales through Twitter promotions that are credited to the communications shop.

Company-wide consolidation is not the only answer to assigning the proper ownership of communications in an organization. Whether consolidation is on the table for your organization or not, now more than ever, it is crucial to clarify communications ownership in your organization. Here are three ways to do so:

  1. Define when one department should own an issue outright

    Although the approach to communications should be integral across company functions, there are exceptions when one department should own communications outright. These include when crises necessitate tight control, proprietary news must be contained, or when select expertise is required on a given issue. One should beware of loose definitions of these circumstances since these should be considered exceptions while integral management of communications should be the rule.
  2. Commit to working across departments

    A wise person once said that you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been. Therefore, in order to encourage departments to manage communications cross-functionally, you must first begin with a candid assessment of how communications are currently managed and what needs to change. Through the assessment you can build a case to your company’s senior leadership for the changes that are needed in creating clarity around the management of communications. From there you can set parameters that respect functions but flatten communications responsibilities, and create a systematic structure to guide all parties for communications requirements across functions on when they should lead communications or play an integral role. Finally, it is critical to broadcast successes and failures of cross-functional coordination so the process is improved and the results of the shared approach are proven.

  3. Enable and maintain message consistency

    The true test of the integral management of communications across departments and functions is message consistency; ensuring that no matter who speaks for the company and promotes information publicly, the message will ring the same. This requires “universalizing” communications so that every member of a company has the same understanding of the mission, purpose and achievements of the organization and can act as an ambassador to the brand at any time. It also requires communicating about communications by coordinating regular assessments of communications ownership, and integrating all major corporate functions in the process in advance. Finally, such as with all good initiatives, remember to conduct an after-action analysis to gauge quality control and the need for further realignment of communications ownership as needed.

Based on tightening budgets, new media technologies, and navigating traditional organizational silos, the need to better define who owns communications has never been greater in business organizations today.

While consolidation may help establish efficiencies, the culture of organizations must be changed as well so there are clear rules of the road for how to manage a function that is inherently shared across companies.

In order to fix fractured communications, change can start immediately by assessing the need and advocating for a new approach to the ownership of communications that will represent and promote your business brand better than ever.

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