Break down communication boundaries

It was the year of the “polar vortex,” the year when a remarkably cold winter struck North America. Just my luck. I was new to Washington, D.C., wearing everything I owned and naively walking to work at minus 15 degrees Celsius, listening to the radio and focusing on keeping my limbs warm. Only three more blocks to go.

Then the 8 a.m. news bulletin opened with the results of a “confidential” employee engagement survey of the organization I was working for at the time. The employee dissatisfaction rumor mill had moved its complaints from the HR office to the press room and back. My PR-expert persona discovered a newfound respect for the isolated internal comms team.

I walked two more blocks and thought: Somebody didn’t do their homework. To this day, it’s clear to me that somebody let the functional walls get in the way of the organization’s success. Who dropped the ball? If this were The Apprentice, who would you fire?

  1. The internal communication manager? Should they have stopped the leak of the employee engagement survey results?
  2. The press office, because they should have scorched the story?
  3. The HR team, because the buck stops with them?

My answer: the CEO.

Why? The organization was not built to deal with problems that cross the boundaries of the white space in the organizational chart. It was the fault of the old-fashioned, 20th-century, factory-minded structures that limit human ingenuity and our ability to set a goal, assess the problem and align the resources needed to get us past the finish line. In this instance, a group of highly qualified professionals were more incentivized to play “pass the parcel” than to solve the problem facing them.

Years later, I was at a different organization. Let’s call it “Globocorp.” The CEO was also blindsided by the fake construct of internal versus external communication. She traveled to a remote location, fully briefed on all the local community issues, their specific contribution, and the local customs and culture. The employee engagement team had done a great job briefing her. But, at the town hall meeting, she was bombarded with questions about the stock price from employees who followed the market on their mobiles.

All I could think was: The turf wars strike again.

Forget about slices—make the pie bigger

Turf wars tend to drive discussions on how you can justify your function, how to add value to the organization, how to get a bigger piece of the pie. But I would argue that we, as communicators, are missing the point. We should be asking: “How do we make the pie bigger?” And by pie, I mean the success of the organization as a whole. Not just our piece. Make the pie bigger, forget about slices.

We could do much worse than look at the trajectory of the sustainability discipline. At the turn of the century, we were still talking about how to turn corporate philanthropy and company foundations into the shiny and new “CSR” brand. I even gave a lecture to a communication school on corporate social responsibility as a career path. Believe me, it is a lovely job. I’ve had it. The problem is that when things get tough and companies have to tighten their belts, roles that are “nice to have” are the first to go. This is the corporate equivalent of an embassy evacuating all “non-essential personnel.” Therein lies the key. Become essential.

My more enlightened CSR colleagues saw this and moved toward sustainability and sustainable development of the business. They are engrained into how a company works and is successful. This was simultaneously by design and a result of the external environment. When society demands you to be socially and environmentally responsible to allow your existence (to buy your products, give you licenses, engage with your brand), you put those in charge of satisfying that need in the driver’s seat. Sustainability professionals are no longer the “CSR chaps” running bake sales for Christmas.

I see communication going in a similar trajectory. Success will belong to those that embrace the trend and leave behind the silos that so far have protected them.

How do you know what to do now?

Riding the wave of change is always easier said than done. “Right, I’ve read this article so now I’m going to change my entire way of working,” said no one. Ever.

So, let me be slightly more helpful than provocative and leave you with two things that have helped me change the way I approach nonlinear problems:

1. Know your standards: When it comes to human behavior, there is almost never a single path to take. This is why our work is so tough: It’s all context-driven. But international standards are a good guide. I particularly like and use the IABC Global Standard. It’s practical, realistic, vetted and has a great mnemonic: ECCASE. Easy case.

2. Practice: Another tool is simulation. It helps you to flex your decision-making muscles in a safe environment. Would you get on a plane with a pilot that hasn’t successfully landed lots and lots of planes in simulation? Would you let a surgeon who had never used a scalpel take out your appendix? In high school, many of us took part in school elections, Model United Nations, or Mock Court. In communication, many of us have prepared organizations to respond to crisis through simulations, stress testing a team’s response to media and organizational pressures. It works. We know it. When was the last time you took your team on a simulation?

Back to the polar vortex. If I were in Washington again, I would have wished for a complete press management strategy for the engagement survey. No surprises. No lack of control. No news.

At “Globocorp,” the CEO would have counted on the local manager’s knowledge of the local zeitgeist. The team would have focused on helping her become a better leader rather than writing the perfect talking points for her trip.

The communication profession would stop having discussions about general survival and devote that energy to engage, truly, madly, deeply, with their organizations.

Let’s focus on the pie and forget about the slices.

Written by Casilda Malagon for CW Magazine