Communicators don’t just communicate
I taught a module on reputation management at the University of Leeds a year or so ago and one of the definitions of reputation management that I used was by Doorley and Garcia. They said: Reputation = Sum of images = Performance + Behaviour + Communications.
As I reflected on my own career, it struck me that producing communications ‘stuff’ is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the role of being a communicator and that we deliver a lot of other value for the organisations and leaders that we work for. Here’s a few obvious and less obvious examples:
Build better organisations
The good news is that in most companies, the communications function is no longer just an order taker, but truly has an impact on the success of the organisation. For instance, in my last-in-house role, I was a member of the leadership team and so worked on the business strategy and plan.
For me, making the firm more successful is the most important thing that communicators can do. Frankly it doesn’t matter how zingy your Yammer post is if the organisation is failing. Being knowledgeable about the business’s goals means that you can develop the right communications strategy and plan to deliver them.
Change culture and behaviours
It’s true that people believe actions more than words. If a company says that it’s a listening organisation, but does nothing with the feedback it receives, how do you think people are going to feel? If a company says that its people are its number one asset, but there’s an abusive culture and the employee benefits were cut last year, how are people going to feel? Communicators have a really important role in determining the culture and values of a firm, to ensure that leaders do, as well as say the right thing.
Improve products and services
I had one client who asked for my help to deal with a torrent of customer complaints that were being reported in the national media each week. However, if you keep getting customer complaints reported in the media and don’t learn from them, then the coverage is likely to get worse. To prevent this, I worked with the operational team to review complaint handling processes, so that customers got a decent response in a reasonable time and didn’t feel as much need to complain to the media.
Then we looked at our products and service standards, changed how we sold them and provided more information at the point of sale, to minimise the risk of them being sold to vulnerable members of society who couldn’t afford them. These combined efforts reduced customer complaints in the media by over 90%.
In another example, during the last recession, the company I worked for was reducing expenditure, making a lot of people redundant and had to make the difficult decision to cut its corporate donation to a charity. However, by working with our marketing team, we enabled our customers to donate their loyalty card points to the charity and we promised to match those donations. We were able to promote this partnership to their supporters and our customers and the overall donation to the charity increased, at a lower cost to the firm.
Maintain trust and care for colleagues
When an organisation makes employees redundant, people can understandably feel disappointed and have a sense that the agreement between them has been broken. Communicators can play a key role here, to ensure that companies are as transparent as possible about planned changes and treat people with respect.
In previous roles, I’ve persuaded HR and operational management colleagues to provide better retention bonuses and outplacement support to people being made redundant. This not only helped maintain service standards during the transition but also kept up morale by demonstrating that the company cared.
Be the company’s conscience
Perhaps one of the roles that I’m most proud of is being the conscience of organisations, asking what is reasonable and then persuading managers and lawyers to do the right thing. I was part of the team that responded to the biggest explosion in peacetime Europe, at an oil terminal north of London. There were people made homeless and business premises destroyed. Initially, it wasn’t clear who was at fault for the explosion, but my communications colleagues and I persuaded the company and our joint venture partner to help those people affected by this incident anyway, because that was the right thing to do.
Then there’s all the other things that we do as communicators: trainer, facilitator/peace negotiator, mentor and coach. Talking of coaches, I now have a solid understanding of the South Wales luxury coach market, from scouring the Internet to find suitable transport for a group of peers, MPs and UK Government officials visiting one of our sites.
I’m not a natural style guru, but I have persuaded one manager to ditch the formal business attire when speaking with a group of school children and other clients not to wear their usual vibrant shirts and ties in TV interviews.
I have had to find a pantomime cow to present a prize sponsored by a dairy supplier.
I had a client who likes to smoke at shisha bars, so I secured speaking opportunities for him at conferences across Europe, wrote his speeches, marketed our involvement and then found him shisha bars in Paris and Prague.
So, when you are sitting down with your client, help them to understand all the value you bring to the organisation and not just the communications stuff.
Daniel Schraibman is an independent change and engagement consultant.