Does Corporate Comms need to be saved…or shifted?

Earlier this week, an essay called “Can we save corporate communication” surfaced through a variety of channels in the PR and Change Management worlds.

It was written by Céline Schillinger, who holds a senior Boston-based change position for a French pharmaceutical company, and is a member of Change Agents Worldwide, a well-thought-of collection of activists and thought leaders in the change management world, one with strong ties to many senior professional communicators.

Her piece pulls no punches.  Corporate executives are “rightly” to be tarred with the same brush soiled by Wells Fargo bank’s recent false account revelations.  Communication professionals, if competent at all, only seem to be capable of delivering tainted corporate narratives through the use of a fractured and politically correct form of jargon, rather than defining and framing a shared reality that would allow for organizations and stakeholders to flourish.  Employees and customers have become generally impervious to facts, making fact-based communication quaint and corporate messaging largely irrelevant. Instead “the community” is the source of all relevance for its members.

But for all of the punches Schillinger throws, she lands very few.  In seeking to make a case that corporate communication has become hopelessly inappropriate and ineffective, she fails to acknowledge five mitigating factors which temper all of these pressures:

  • Organizational dishonesty and corruption, while visible and unsettling, is not necessarily universal.  Many organizations continue to have, and to earn, positive reputations
  •  The organization has the right and need to speak on its own behalf and share its official version of the truth.  If that’s compatible with observable facts, it is indeed possible to form a workable common view of reality
  • Peer to peer is not new and has always been a crucial element of corporate communication. What is new is the ability to systematically identify, connect and where appropriate, mobilize key peer influencers
  •  There is no “the community” – organizations and communities are collections of formal and informal tribes, who can be best influenced through conversation with the key peer influencers therein
  •  Anti-factual movements and political campaigns, though unprecedently strong, are by no means all-pervasive, and facts do remain persuasive for some potentially influential people

Ignoring these factors, Schillinger seeks a wild swing away from the current approach, but one with little definition and no alignment with the objectives of enterprises or their constituents:

“What we need today is, urgently, a new set of communications behaviors and skills. We need activist communicators, who engage with communities at work as individuals – not as corporate loudspeakers – and support them in creating their shared reality. Today’s world calls for comms professionals who enable radical transparency and free flows of information, who coach people everywhere in the organization with communication skills. They can create huge value by connecting all actors who contribute to making the organization storytelling a tangible, creative, dynamic reality. We need comms professionals with a conscience, systemic thinking, and the courage to resist the status quo in which most organizations keep locking them up.”

Nice words.  But what do terms like “activist,” “their shared reality,” “radical transparency,” and “coach people everywhere” mean in practice?

And to what end?  Is it not the role of the organizational or “corporate” communicator to help the organization achieve its objectives, rather than serve a vague externally-imposed notion of virtue or justice?

Better fulfilling this role requires not “salvation” but a shift. A shift in attitude combined with a shift in how we drive communication in the organizations in which we work.

Communicators can better help organizations fulfill their organizations’ objectives when they take the initiative to help formulate and shape them directly and with intent.  This combines the adopting the courage of which Schillinger speaks with a fluency in the organization’s agenda, processes and customer needs. This isn’t necessarily about having a seat at the table, but it is about being able to help define what’s on the menu, how it’s presented to the other leaders there relative to other priorities and options.

A more confident attitude can then combine with a shift away from the persistent top-down, dumbed-down, one-size-fits-all messaging towards identifying, connecting and mobilizing key peer influencers, drawing on their personal credibility, connections and sense-making ability to drive communication in a more resonant and personal way that increases impact and reduces organizational friction.

I agree with Schillinger that corporate communication needs some serious work to remain relevant, credible and valueiadditive in these times.  But there is no need to start over.  It’s time to be smart, confident, and do things that actually work.

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