From a service function to a business function – from cost to value
Bizarre though it may seem, many companies still consider the “communication & public affairs” department as a service function instead of a business function. The difference of perspective is huge. In more progressive organizations, the function is no longer considered as a cost - something that needs to be done to address the questions that people may have about an organization and its products or services, but as a critical department that will generate business results.
Progressive organizations have understood that business results depend on the actual behavior of all stakeholders. The ultimate role of communication and public affairs is to make company leaders systematically engage with these stakeholders in order to listen, to understand, to inform, to educate, and possibly even to co-create, to come up with solutions that fit a common agenda. In this way barriers can be removed, optimal environments can be created, and sustainable business results can be achieved. Companies that engage in such a way will also have a better reputation and will be less confronted with controversy.
The rectangle above illustrates the four key roles of the function and its change over time.
The primary role of the function is to inform (bottom left). It entails a one-sided and unilateral disseminating of information with a strong focus on the communicator itself. It is input-driven and unilateral. In the early days, the role of communicators was limited to this role. The boss made a decision and asked the communications executive to write a press release or internal memo on the subject and to distribute it. Unfortunately, in many organisations, this is still the only role of the communications executive.
The second step is to build relationships (top left): to really get to know the other stakeholders, to meet them and to have a face-to-face engagement. It is still very input-focused: the company has a message to share, the stakeholder is a recipient of this message and hardly more. It is still one-way messaging as in town halls or congresses or other meetings.
The next step, in the bottom right quadrant, changes communications into a business function: its focus is now clearly to create outcomes, to generate business results by campaigning to change the external environment or to make sure that employees are fully on board with a change program or new strategy. Campaigning is a power play: it means hammering on the same nail over and over again, it is a battle of majority versus minority. It still serves the company’s agenda 100%. Metrics include the verification of the support the audiences have for the company messages versus competition, including the willingness to act on them.
The last and latest role of the communications and public affairs function is in the upper right quadrant: to shape. Its objective is to engage and partner with stakeholders in such a way that a win-win situation is created. It is a multilateral, non-conflictual partnership to generate outcomes for all the parties involved. The investment is often higher than with the other three roles, because it requires more time and manpower, yet the value created by this approach is also higher and more sustainable.
To be clear: all four aspects of communication & public affairs are essential, also in today’s function. At times unilateral messages to all stakeholders are still needed. Participating in congresses, meeting people to build relationships and to get to know stakeholders remains essential. Campaigning might be necessary at times when important business challenges are at stake. But the real progressive “communication & public affairs organisations” are the ones that truly participate in shaping the context of their own business. It requires not only in-depth insights in stakeholders’ expectations, but also to work with them to find solutions and long term results that will benefit all parties.
What is different in terms of approach in the “shape” quadrant?
First and foremost it requires a deep engagement with external stakeholders. The prerequisite is that the company and its leaders have a clear vision of what they want to achieve in society, and how society needs to change to offer an optimal environment for the company to conduct its business. It also requires having a clear view of how society is changing and how expectations may evolve over time. This information can only be obtained in a meaningful way by full engagement with the stakeholders, face-to-face and through other channels. It also requires that the company and its leaders have an open-minded and open-ended approach to external expectations and ideas, or in the case of employees and the labor market, that the company truly engages with employees and listens to their aspirations and suggestions. It requires trust and transparency in order to gain acceptance at the stakeholders’ table.
Sure, reality is more complex than the quadrant above, yet it may offer some basis for reflection. Let me know your thoughts!