International Journal of Strategic Communication
Expanding the Scope of Strategic Communication: Towards a Holistic Understanding of Organizational Complexity
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On strategic communication—the current state of the field, theoretical approach—broadening the understanding of strategic communication, method and material, managers and coworkers as communicators, concluding discussion, expanding the body of knowledge.
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The purpose of this article is to contribute to the discussion concerning the present position and future directions of strategic communication by looking into the past and offering some proposals and a vision of how to develop and advance the field further. Research in strategic communication has mostly focused on communication professionals working in communication departments or agencies as primary agents of communication. However, this reflects a limited comprehension of organizations. The article addresses the need to focus not only on communicators, but also on managers and coworkers as key actors when trying to understand and theorize the practice of strategic communication.
Strategic communication has been defined as the study of how organizations use communication purposefully to fulfill their overall missions (e.g., Frandsen & Johansen, Citation 2017 ; Hallahan, Holtzhausen, van Ruler, Verčič, & Sriramesh, Citation 2007 ). The aim of strategic communication as an academic movement has been formulated as an ambition to break down the silos surrounding closely related communication disciplines and create a unifying framework that integrates public relations, organizational communication, marketing communication and other areas. The fundamental idea of strategic communication is thus inclusive, which is a laudable ambition. However, the broad scope of the field is also a challenge because it requires research to break away from established disciplines and fields of knowledge, thus allowing for novel approaches and questions to be explored (Holtzhausen & Zerfass, Citation 2015b ).
The purpose of this article is to contribute to the discussion concerning the present position and future directions of strategic communication by looking into the past and offering some proposals and a vision of how to develop and advance the field further. Fundamentally, we follow the main aim of strategic communication as it is formulated here: as a transdisciplinary, holistic and inclusive field of knowledge. The problem, which we will show later by referring to published research in International Journal of Strategic Communication (IJSC), is that the aim has not yet been fulfilled. This may not be strange because strategic communication is still a young field of knowledge. Still, there is a need to revisit the fundamental definitions of the field and find theoretical and empirical pathways that may take us further.
At the beginning of this article, we refer to the review of articles in IJSC presented by Werder, Nothhaft, Verčič, and Zerfass ( Citation 2018 ) and a similar review done by ourselves. These reviews demonstrate the problems with the early development of strategic communication and we highlight some aspects which we find troublesome. In the following section, we present a theoretical framework that broadens the understanding of strategic communication. We emphasize the importance of a communication perspective on organizations, and specifically proclaim the use of the Communicative Constitution of Organizations’ (CCO) perspective. We also reflect upon the use of strategy, and criticize the modernist use of strategy in much current research. In the third section, we present the approach and some results from a research project, “Communicative Organizations,” aiming to illustrate how we think that strategic communication may be developed, based on the premises that we have described earlier. In this project, there is a strong focus on managers and coworkers and their communication, in line with the shift from bureaucratic to postbureaucratic organizations, which involves a move from organizations based on hierarchies, rules and close supervision to organizations built on loosely structured networks, management by values and visions, self-directed team work, and horizontal communication (Fairtlough, Citation 2008 ).
In the next section, we discuss the present state of strategic communication in three aspects—research foci, methods, and meta-theoretical perspectives. We point out some weaknesses and consequent potentials for the development of the field. Our argumentation is based on a content analysis of articles published in International Journal of Strategic Communication 2007–2017 by Werder et al. ( Citation 2018 ). We will also refer to a similar content analysis that we presented at the International Communication Association preconference “Future Directions of Strategic Communication” (Heide, Simonsson, von Platen, & Falkheimer, Citation 2017 ).
In trying to characterize the field, it is relevant to address the question of what topics scholars in the field tend to focus on. The content analysis we conducted (Heide et al., Citation 2017 ) displayed that the topics most frequently addressed were communication management, planning, and related topics such as audience segmentation, message design, relationship building, campaigns, and evaluation. It is quite apparent, regarding research, that the analyzed articles were mainly concerned with what we would designate as traditional public relations issues. This, to be certain, does not mean that these issues are not approached and dealt with in a novel and fruitful manner. However, the topics in themselves do bear some resemblance to what is being published in other academic journals operating in the intersection of organization and communication. It should also be noted that Werder et al.’s ( Citation 2018 ) analysis of the disciplinary focus of published articles, shows that 38% of the articles are categorized as belonging to the discipline of public relations. One critical question must then be raised: Have we reached the goal of integrating the different specialties of communication studies or are scholars doing the same things as before (i.e., more of the same), but using the heading of strategic communication (instead of public relations)? We would not go so far as to argue that public relations scholars have “invaded” the field of strategic communication, but we definitely need to integrate a greater variety of disciplines than hitherto, not least from the fields of organizational theory and social theory.
What may also be worth noticing is the near absence of communication professionals as a research topic (Heide et al., Citation 2017 ). Communication professionals are, of course, present, even if they are not approached directly, because it is ultimately their work, values, and domain that are under scrutiny. However, a more explicit discussion about roles in terms of expectations and work tasks is nevertheless important if we want to say something about how, and to what extent, communication professionals contribute to the fulfillment of overall goals. At the same time, in this article we argue that not only communication professionals, but also managers and coworkers, should be included in the study of strategic communication. Following the holistic approach claimed to be significant for the research field of strategic communication, it should be clear that the communication function and its activities only represent a small proportion of the communication carried out in, and by, an organization.
Methods and empirical material
The content analysis by Werder et al. ( Citation 2018 ) reveals that surveys, content analysis, and case studies are the most common methods. It is noticeable that observation is not included among categories of used methods. Our impression, after having read many papers, articles, and books within the field of strategic communication, is that research findings are too often based on small samples, student samples, or single case studies. There are several possible explanations for this: lack of research funding, increased pressure in universities to publish articles, and dominating scientific norms and genres that are not questioned by new generations. We find it important to urge for more studies with richer and more varied empirical material, at least on an aggregated level. The field of strategic communication would benefit from three different kinds of studies that hitherto are rare: a) large-scales studies, b) close-up studies, and c) multimethods.
There is certainly a need for more large-scale studies —both national and international. Our research project “The Communicative Organization” (2014–2017) is one of few examples with a large national sample, which targets both coworkers, managers, and communication professionals. Another valuable exception is the European Communication Monitor (see http://www.communicationmonitor.eu ), which is a yearly transnational study on strategic communication. But because this study exclusively focuses on communication professionals, there is need for international, comparative studies that also include coworkers and managers.
Quite often, we see a case study based on 10 interviews. Even if such studies may produce interesting results, they are often criticized for being too meager. Another criticism is that interview studies only focus on interviewees’ talk. Although there often are differences between talk and actions, it is interesting and disclosing to study both. One method of studying talk and actions is the use of close-up , ethnographic studies that render “thick descriptions” (see Geertz, Citation 1973 ). These are detailed accounts that describe patterns of cultural and social relationships, and can reveal what coworkers actually do when they try to do what they claim to do, e.g., strategic communication (cf. Alvesson & Jonsson, Citation 2016 ).
Following the inclusive approach in strategic communication, multimethods may be fruitful (Bryman, Citation 2011 ). The use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in the same study is sometimes applied in order to secure the quality. If the same results are reached with different methods, it is claimed that a study demonstrates good validity. This, however, presupposes the existence of an objective reality “out there” as well as an understanding that theories mirror reality. Our perception is quite the reverse, theories and knowledge are constructs (cf. Cheney, Citation 2000 ). Thus, we argue that the main advantage of multimethods is the possibility to capture tensions and contradictions rather than making sure that we find the “truth” (cf. Alvesson & Sköldberg, Citation 2009 ). We would instead like to encourage more reflexive and constructive dialogues between researchers, which implies that researchers: “drop their heavy tools of paradigms and monologs” (Weick, Citation 1999 , p. 804).
Lack of meta-theoretical reflections
Another reflection based in our content analysis (Heide et al., Citation 2017 ) concerns the rare occurrence of philosophy of science discussions—primarily methodological aspects are presented and discussed (cf. Gartrell & Gartrell, Citation 1996 , who identified this in sociology). This tendency is troublesome because critical reflections concerning e.g., ontology, epistemology, universalizing claims, rationalism, and the relation between theory and empirical material is important for the development of research quality. Almost four decades ago, Morgan ( Citation 1980 ) emphasized that a researcher studying an object (e.g., an organizational phenomenon), approaches it based on taken-for-granted ideas of how research should be conducted in order to be perceived as “scientific.” These ideas are frequently reproduced by the research community, which tends to reward researchers who follow the ideas of the dominating paradigm (cf. Burrell & Morgan, Citation 1979 ). Morgan ( Citation 1980 ) suggests that the result is a self-sustaining nature of orthodoxy that impedes alternative ways of understanding phenomena. The solution, Morgan claims, is to encourage theoretical and methodological pluralism that allows progress in new perspectives and knowledge.
In line with Morgan’s reasoning, the content analysis displayed that positivism tends to be the dominating paradigm within the field of strategic communication (Heide et al., Citation 2017 ). The analysis also demonstrated that some articles that are categorized as qualitative still follow the logic of the quantitative paradigm, and use concepts such as hypotheses, limitations, respondents, reliability, validity, and so forth. Hence, these articles are in fact pseudo-qualitative pieces. An explanation of the tendency to embrace a quantitative ideal is that qualitative researchers too often adapt to the positivistic rules in order to become published. This is nevertheless problematic because it forces qualitative researchers to cause-effect theorizing and obstructs possibilities of richer, explanatory theorizing (Cornelissen, Citation 2017 ).
In our analysis of published articles, we tried to identify from what perspective each research problem was studied, and for whom the results were framed as relevant. The analysis indicated that researchers in strategic communication tend to take a management perspective and privilege managers and their actions, which could be interpreted as a sign of managerialism (Alvesson & Sveningsson, Citation 2011 ). Managerialism is grounded in a discourse of instrumentality (Deetz, Citation 1992 ) and management is primarily perceived as a technical activity performed by administrative experts (Mintzberg, Citation 2009 ). This understanding also involves a traditional view of rationality where it is taken for granted that it is possible to control and manage stakeholders.
The lack of reflexive discussions of philosophy of science and the domination of positivism and managerialism could be explained by the fact that the field is rather young. Nevertheless, it is problematic, because it may imply that certain ideas of how “good” science should be conducted and what kind of knowledge it should result in, tend to develop into taken-for-granted ideas and become a barrier to theoretical and methodological pluralism within the field. Perhaps more studies from a critical perspective would facilitate shifting our gaze from the top echelons of organizations to different stakeholders, and open up for other questions concerning e.g., the exercise of power in organizations as well as in the public sphere as an important but rarely recognized constituent of strategic communication. In this article, we argue that the Communicative Constitution of Organizations (CCO) perspective could also contribute to further development of the field. The CCO perspective is interesting in at least two ways: partly because it opens up for new meta-theoretical approaches, and partly because it invites one to a broadened view of what kinds of actors and communication activities could be perceived as essential to organizational strategic communication.
In this section, we present a theoretical framework that broadens the understanding of strategic communication. First, there is a need to challenge the traditional understanding of communication and its relation to organizations. It is quite astonishing that our research community sometimes takes communication for granted. One could expect that researchers who have expertise in communication theory, should frequently try to understand and explain different phenomena from a communication perspective and also reflect on communication per se . For the purpose of reflecting on communication and its vital importance for the existence of organizations, we proclaim the use of the CCO perspective. Second, there is also a need to challenge the often taken-for-granted understanding of strategy. For that purpose we use the strategy as practice tradition that is related to the practice turn in strategic communication (cf. Aggerholm & Asmuß, Citation 2016 ). Finally, to reach a more realistic understanding of the complex organizational realities, we have consulted literature within the organizational paradox and contradiction movement.
Researchers in psychology, sociology and economics do not simply study individual behavior, societies, or economies, respectively; they bring to their research particular lenses that help them to form explanations for how to view the world. Our inability to articulate a clearly developed “communicative” explanation for social life has not only hurt us professionally, it has kept society from understanding experience in this important way. (p. 9)
The notion of communication as constitutive is mentioned in Hallahan et al.’s ( Citation 2007 ) article but is not developed further. Nevertheless, the conception of communication as the key factor in constituting and maintaining organizations is consistent with the holistic, integrated approach of strategic communication.
Taylor ( Citation 2009 ), one of the founders of the CCO approach, argues that organization emerges from the bottom up rather from the top down, which implies that an organization is a product of continuous sense making and communication processes. This reasoning is in line with Weick’s ( Citation 1995 , Citation 2009 ) theory of organizational sensemaking. According to Weick, an organization should not be perceived as something stable, constant, or objective. Consequently, Weick declares that we should use the verb organizing , that embraces the active role of organizational members’ communication when organizations are produced and reproduced, rather than the noun organization. Already three decades ago, Schall ( Citation 1983 ) emphasized that organizations are: “created, sustained, transmitted, and changed through social interaction—through modelling and imitation, instruction, correction, negotiation, story-telling, gossip, remediation, confrontation, and observation—all activities based on message exchange and meaning assignment, that is, on communication” (p. 560).
Another fundamental concept—strategic—has also been rather ignored and taken for granted. Strategic is naturally related to strategy, that is, a description of how ends (i.e., goals) will be reached by means (i.e., resources) and involves two processes—formulation (strategic planning and strategic thinking) and implementation (Freedman, Citation 2013 ). In the research literature, there is a widely shared perception that the traditional way of conducting strategic planning is not working (Liedtka, Citation 2000 ). The traditional approach is described by Hallahan et al. ( Citation 2007 ) as the modernist strategy approach, and strategic work in this approach is regarded as a controllable, rational process initiated from top management. Liedtka ( Citation 2000 ) concludes that “the strategic planning literature has focused too much attention on strategic choices and not enough on the day-to-day strategic conversations through which strategies get developed, tested, and implemented” (p. 203). This seems also to be the case for the research field of strategic communication—more research should be conducted on how strategic communication is realized and materialized.
An alternative way of studying and understanding strategic work is the emergent approach, which values the communication and decisions of all employees at all levels. Rather than studying how managers construct and transmit strategy to employees (the doers), the emergent approach focuses on how coworkers and their communication is constitutive of the strategy. Although Hallahan et al. ( Citation 2007 ) urged that there was a need to explore different approaches to the term strategic, the managerial, modernist approach still seems to prevail. Although strategy in research on strategic communication is often taken for granted or understood traditionally as a rational planning process, the emergent approach highlights the microlevel social activities, practices, and processes of strategy work (Golsorkhi, Rouleau, Seidl, & Vaara, Citation 2015 ). The emergent approach is often referred to as the strategy as practice approach which is part of a larger practice turn in social sciences. Practices are regarded as arrays of individual activities (Schatzki, Citation 2001 ). Hence, different phenomena such as knowledge, power, leadership, and, by all means, strategic communication, occur within, or are aspects of, individual practices. The practice turn is not a plea to conduct research that is more relevant to practitioners, but to focus on activities in order to develop more nuanced understanding of complex phenomena (Gherardi, Citation 2016 ).
Contemporary research on strategy has put microstrategizing in the center of interest, i.e., what organizational members actually do with the strategy (e.g., Johnson, Melin, & Whittington, Citation 2003 ). Jarzabkowski ( Citation 2004 ) concludes that there is a gap between theories that describe what organizational members do and what they really do in local, everyday life. Jarzabkowski uses the concept of strategy-as-practice to illustrate the relationship between individual micropractices (i.e., the daily work) and macropractices in terms of norms and values that affect the micropractices. Wilson and Jarzabkowski ( Citation 2004 ) emphasize that there is always a mutual relationship between macro and micro. Microlevel activities have macroeconomic effects, whereas these activities are influenced by macrophenomena such as political, social, and economic institutions (e.g., industry standards). Based on the perception that strategy is something that organizational members create, perform and materialize, rather than just seeing strategy as something an organization has , Marchiori and Bulgacov ( Citation 2012 ) argue that we must understand the importance of communication in the creation of strategies. Strategy is thus a communicative practice that is conducted at different levels in an organization as the organization is continuously created and reproduced. Increasingly, researchers in strategic communication adopt a more complex understanding of strategy by using the strategy as practice approach (Aten & Thomas, Citation 2016 ; Frandsen & Johansen, Citation 2015 ; Gulbrandsen & Just, Citation 2016 ). This perspective of strategy is closely related to the CCO perspective, because both embrace the performative and sensemaking aspect of communication.
In keeping with the bottom-up-approach, the CCO perspective is also grounded in the notion of organizations as being polyphonic or multivocal , which invites studies on competing rationalities, tensions, and paradoxes rather than the often used rationalistic, one-dimensional approach. Tension is an emotional state that occurs when employees face incompatibilities and dilemmas which result in frustration and stress (cf. Putnam, Citation 1986 ), and paradox refers to contradictory conditions that exist simultaneously and are often perceived as irrational or absurd (Lewis & Smith, Citation 2014 ). Further, complex organizational realities with globalization, new technologies, and fast-changing economic conditions result in ubiquitous contradictions and paradoxes (Mumby, Citation 2014 ). Several researchers argue that tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes are not necessarily problematic, but should rather be seen as normal, unavoidable, and ubiquitous in organizational life (Cooren, Matte, Benoit-Barné, & Brummans, Citation 2013 ; Putnam, Fairhurst, & Banghart, Citation 2016 ; Tracy, Citation 2004 ). Instead of suppressing or ignoring tensions, it is better to embrace them—to increase awareness of them, to analyze their characteristics and to manage them by meta-communication (Ashcraft & Trethewey, Citation 2004 ; Heide & Simonsson, Citation 2015 ).
Researchers that are interested in tensions and paradoxes primarily use the case study approach with interviews and observation to develop a deeper understanding of the phenomena. The preceding discussion thus emphasizes the need for broader conceptualization and understanding of strategic communication. It also indicates the need to shift our attention towards managers’ and coworkers’ communication and how these practices may contribute to, as well as hamper, organizational strategic communication. In the following sections, we thus provide some examples of how strategic communication is constituted by a multitude of subprocesses and everyday interactions. Our empirical examples should not be regarded as a precept, but rather as a humble suggestion for how research could go beyond a more traditional way of approaching and studying strategic communication. We believe that it is difficult to embrace all aspects of strategic communication within a single research project, such as multiple perspectives and theories, but we would like to see more perspectives, also critical, on an aggregated level. In the research that is presented below, we have primarily included communication professionals, managers and coworkers, and we have used both quantitative and qualitative empirical material.
The empirical material in this part of the article comes from a three-year-research project, “The Communicative Organization” (2014–2017). The purpose of the project is to increase knowledge about how communication creates value and contributes to organizational goal attainment. A distinguishing characteristic of the project is that it includes not only the perspectives and activities of communication professionals but also of managers and coworkers. The project involves eleven Swedish public (both governmental and municipal) and private sector organizations. The participating organizations were self-selected. A strategic selection of organizations based on criteria such as size, sector, or communication excellence has thus not been applied in the study.
A quantitative survey was carried out in the participating organizations during 2015 and 2016. A random sampling strategy was applied in all of the participating organizations, except one—where the survey was sent out to all employees. The survey was answered by 8,091 respondents, which equals a response rate of 29%. The survey targeted three groups: managers, coworkers, and communication professionals, aiming to find commonalities and differences in attitudes towards different aspects of strategic communication. The questionnaire was divided into various sections, and it covered areas such as communication climate, managers’ and coworkers’ communication, communication professionals’ work, and interaction with external stakeholders. The majority of the questions were formulated as statements and the respondents were asked to indicate their answers on a five-point Likert scale.
In addition, approximately 150 qualitative interviews were held with managers, coworkers, and communication professionals in the participating organizations. The interviewees were selected with the assistance of our formal contacts in the participating organizations. When selecting candidates for the interviews, we applied a purposeful sampling of information-rich individuals that we considered able to make valuable contributions to the study. In order to get rich and varied material, we looked for individuals with different backgrounds, gender, age, positions, and experiences. The vast majority of the interviews were individual and performed face-to-face. A smaller number of the interviews were carried out as group interviews or by telephone due to practical circumstances. The average duration of the interviews was one hour, and all the interviews were transcribed verbatim. The purpose of the interviews was to gain a deeper understanding of a variety of communication processes. The interview questions thus covered aspects such as formal and informal internal communication flows and procedures, communication responsibilities, branding, the work and role of the communicator, change communication, cross-functional and horizontal communication processes, and collaboration practices. The interviews were also used to explore communication practices related to leadership, coworkership, and ambassadorship. The interviewees were thus encouraged to share their experiences regarding everyday communication and interaction with superior and subordinate colleagues, as well as challenges and responsibilities related to encounters with external stakeholders. A thematic approach was applied when analyzing the qualitative material. The interviews were studied thoroughly, as we searched for themes related to a wide variety of communication processes involving mangers on different levels as well as coworkers. In relation to each theme, patterns, irregularities, and nuances were identified. The material was then sorted into categories as regards e.g., processes, actions, key actors, positive and negative experiences, tensions, and paradoxes—thus generating a rich material for exploring how managers and coworkers contribute to strategic communication.
We now present some of the results from the project. Empirical material from both the survey and the interviews are included. The focus is on illustrating the importance of manager’s and coworker’s interactions as constitutive of strategic communication, and also on some of the tensions and challenges within this area. Based on the notion of strategic communication as communication that contributes to the goal attainment of the organization, our line of argument is that the overall ability of an organization to act and communicate strategically hinges upon a variety of formal and informal communication processes that take place as managers and other members interact on an everyday basis.
It can be argued that senior management communication is, or should be, inherently strategic in character. Without senior managers who listen—both to coworkers and to the surrounding world—and who make decisions and communicate them to employees, one of the most fundamental means to coordinate action and perform as an organization is lost. But how do coworkers perceive senior management and their communication? The survey results showed that coworkers are quite critical towards the communication of their top management. Of the respondents, 36% disagree with the statement that senior management is providing clear information to employees; 23% do not have any confidence in top management. Several of the organizations that were included in the project are quite large and complex with thousands of employees (in some cases more than 50,000 employees), which of course aggravates communication between senior managers and employees. Even so, we found no clear patterns in relation to the size of the organizations. It is also interesting to note that top management communication was one of the areas where we found the greatest differences among the 11 organizations. Hence, reaching a trustful level of communication between senior managers and employees should not be considered an impossible task.
Everything has become so “political.” Everything has to look good from the outside so that senior managers can keep their jobs. At the same time, we all know that it does not work. And yet they just repeat: “Everything works great!”
At the other, and positive, end of the continuum of attitudes towards senior managers, we find coworkers who trust and respect senior managers for the job they are doing. At this end, we also find coworkers who seem to have reasonable expectations of how much senior managers can be visible and communicate directly with employees in the organization. Behind the positive attitudes we often find senior managers who have high ambitions with their communication. For instance, there are managers who spend a lot of time regularly visiting different parts of the organization and who invite “ordinary” employees to dialogue meetings several times per year. The importance of these face-to-face-meetings seems to lie in the connection between visibility and being seen as a person. A major concern among the coworkers seems to be: “Do they [senior managers] really know how we as employees are doing and what conditions we have”? Personal meetings provide a forum where both managers and employees can appear as persons—not only as an anonymous mass or group—and tell their own stories.
There is such a strong willingness to respond to questions that arise in those intimate meetings. And sometimes these questions can get out of proportion./…/One example is when someone said that the trousers we wear at work are ugly. And then we started a process of evaluating these trousers. It is like… when you attend those dialogue meetings, you can always expect to get what you want.
The quote illustrates that a very strong willingness to listen may imply that leaders abdicate from their role as leaders to prioritize and also say no to some ideas. Another senior manager said that when she meets different employee groups, she is very careful in clarifying that her intention is to talk about what the employees find important: “I underscore that this is their time, and that I have no agenda.” This is of course a laudable approach, but if taken to an extreme, it also implies missed opportunities for leadership and strategic communication, e.g., by addressing values, visions, strategy and other long-term issues that are challenging to communicate.
It is the responsibility of senior management to craft long-term strategies, make significant decisions and coordinate organizational actions to reach the goals. For these processes to take place, communication between senior management and organizational members is of course a prerequisite. The preceding examples illustrate that these communication processes can be executed either more or less strategically. When one third of the employees perceive the information from senior management as unclear, and sense that management is not authentic or honest, and in addition, prone to monologue rather than dialogue, communication certainly cannot be considered to be strategic. However, it is also evident that senior management communication may have a strategic potential, e.g., when managers communicate directly with employees. In these face-to-face encounters, even if they are few and far apart, influential and more subtle mechanisms are set in motion. Information is not merely shared and interpreted, there is also mutual recognition between “them” and “us.” The employees do not only “see” the manager, they also experience that the manager “sees” them, i.e., in terms of being acknowledged. The symbolic value of this interaction is inherently strategic, and it goes far beyond the value of a weekly newsletter from the CEO or director-general.
Middle managers as communicators
The survey included several questions about how employees perceive their immediate manager and her/his communication. The questions concerned aspects such as the manager’s availability, openness for feedback, communication of objectives and invitation to dialogue. In contrast to senior managers, middle managers are generally highly appreciated by their coworkers. Coworkers are most pleased with their manager’s availability; 82% of the employees think that their manager is available. Coworkers are least satisfied with managers’ capability to explain current events in the organization and how their own work may be affected by these events. Only a little more than half of the respondents, 55%, agree that their manager is good at this, i.e., connecting the parts and the whole, which clearly indicates a potential for improvement.
When the budget is done, it would have been good to know more about the preconditions and how it went this year. […] we get information about what is happening at our little unit, but it would be good to have the bigger perspective.
From a strategic communication perspective, it is quite problematic that middle managers have difficulties in communicating organizational-wide issues and in connecting these to the everyday work of their employees. As a result of many factors—the shift from production to information/knowledge and service economy, leadership is becoming increasingly based on visions and goals rather than control and direct surveillance, and the digital transformation—the communication role of leaders is more a matter of managing meaning rather than “pure” information distribution (cf. Rouleau & Balogun, Citation 2011 ; Smircich & Morgan, Citation 1982 ; Weick, Citation 1995 ). As organizations are becoming increasingly complex, the communication content also becomes more complex and ambiguous. Therefore, managers at all levels need to be able to translate messages and invite coworkers to talk about complex issues—i.e., managers who act as sense makers. The rather poor results in relation to senior management communication can also be related to middle managers’ shortcomings in communicating strategic, overall messages that often emanate from the top management. One of the senior managers being interviewed argued that the rather negative results of senior managers and the contrasting positive results of middle managers show that “we have a problem which is not related to the dialogue between senior managers and employees, but we need to find out what problems we have in communication between different management levels.” This quote illustrates one area often neglected in leadership studies and in the field of strategic communication, namely communication between managers (Balogun & Johnson, Citation 2004 ).
The interviews indicate that middle managers are not always involved in strategic issues, which means that in some cases they are just as much “receivers” of strategic messages as their coworkers are. Some interviewees also claim that the material that middle managers get from the top managers is often insufficient and is distributed too late. Although sometimes lacking substantial material, middle managers also talk about difficulties in handling the amount of information. One possible interpretation is that middle managers are in a communicative line of fire, with a lot of information and messages coming from senior managers, coworkers, and stakeholders. A major tension thus seems to be how to prioritize between daily, operational business and strategic, overall questions.
Moving downwards in the hierarchical line of communication, middle managers have a pivotal role as communicators, as they translate, inform, make sense, support, and give feedback to employees in order to coordinate actions towards organizational goals. As illustrated before, managers that are available and willing to talk and listen to coworkers on a daily basis, are one of the fundamental assets of strategic communication. Interpretation, framing, and naming of organizational events takes place in everyday interaction, which makes this a principal arena for managers to communicate strategically and guide collective action. Line manager is a challenging position in terms of communication responsibilities, though. For example, too much and too little information and their hierarchical position contribute to line managers not being fully able to communicate with their coworkers on goal related matters such as the “big perspective” and to discuss these issues in a local context. This implies that, to a certain extent, neither managers nor employees have adequate knowledge about these topics. An organization does perhaps not stand and fall with members’ awareness of these overarching issues. However, underestimating their importance as part of strategic communication certainly does not facilitate joint action or lessen the gap between the top and bottom echelons of an organization.
Coworkers as communicators
The notion that employees’ everyday interaction and communication constitute organizational strategic communication and goal attainment may be also illustrated in a number of ways. For instance, the ability of one of the participating organizations, a municipality, to “serve the citizens and the public” rests not only on the provision of information and physical resources to citizens, but also on the organization’s ability to scan the environment and listen to stakeholders. This may be achieved in many ways, but it certainly hinges on the public servants’ inclination to turn visions and ideals into listening practices. As expressed by one interviewee: “We set up these dialogue meetings with the people living in the area, we had a good discussion and could really take in some important suggestions.” Without the capacity to enact listening practices, scan and bring back impressions to the organization, fulfilling the ambition of “serving the public” would be a lot more challenging. However, to practice listening in complex, politically governed organizations is demanding. For the employee, as well as for the organization, it involves taking into account numerous and often contradictory opinions that have to be weighed against strategic planning and sustainable, long-term goals that are integral to democratic institutions. In addition, knowing that decisions about e.g., town planning or social housing can be difficult to explain, and that some stakeholder group is bound to be disappointed, certainly brings tension to organizational listening.
Another example is in a multinational manufacturing company. Here, operations to a quite large extent rely on cross functional processes, decentralized structures, and individual responsibilities. The success of this particular organization thus rests upon members’ ability to resolve conflicts and other work-related issues in a flexible manner. One employee says: “If there is a problem, something wrong, I just call this guy right away and we sort it out. I have never needed to involve a superior in resolving our everyday issues or problems.” Operations are thus enabled and to a certain extent constituted by the coworkers’ shared capacity to interact or communicate with each other in a certain way.
Regarded as discrete behaviors, the examples given here may not be so remarkable. However, both the survey and the interviews reveal that on an aggregate level there is a great concern for and willingness among employees to contribute to an open communication climate in their respective organizations. The survey shows that, for instance, 94% agree with the statement: “I contribute to create good dialogue in my work group,” and that 85% agree with the statement “I often give feedback to my colleagues.” One employee characterizes the communication climate in the workplace in the following manner: “At this place we have a really casual and direct way of communicating. We often solve a lot of issues when having lunch. If there is something I need to know I just go and ask my manager.” Taken together, these patterns of interaction constitute a valued resource for most organizations, i.e., a supportive communication climate that enables interpersonal trust. Without skilled interpersonal interaction that allows for employee voice and engagement, overarching goals such as organizational change, learning, and crisis resilience will be difficult to achieve. Still, the material illustrates that the challenge lies not so much in striking a balance between a climate of voice vs. silence. The task is rather to foster a climate that is open and allowing, but still has norms for what is considered appropriate and what is not. As one employee said: “The thing here is that some people blurt out all sort of criticism that comes to mind, like a five-year-old. Then, surprisingly, they get offended and feel silenced when they are told to keep their opinions to themselves.” Fostering a climate of participation and openness thus brings new tensions and challenges to the table.
Brand and reputation are key organizational assets, though expressed in different ways by public and private organizations. A great deal may be done in order to enhance these resources in terms of marketing communication and public relations. Nevertheless, when it comes to these and other intangible assets, interaction between organizational members and external stakeholders is of vital importance. The survey shows that coworkers display a great willingness to act as ambassadors on behalf of the organization or employer. For instance, 65% of the coworkers answered that they often say good things about their organization. Moreover, 77% of the coworkers claimed that when they encounter incorrect rumors about their organization, they try to refute and correct them. Being an ambassador is interpreted in various ways.
For instance, one person employed by a governmental institution framed this task as not talking in a derogatory way about colleagues or their work: “When I have external contacts, I represent the entire organization. I would never even consider saying something bad about a colleague.” Another interviewee says that: “Every time I pick up the phone to answer a call, I remember that I have a role as ambassador. It is about disseminating a favorable message. Service is highly rated in all our formal policies.” Ambassadorship thus seems to be about a professional stance towards the role and work. It is also understood as an ability to separate backstage and frontstage behaviors, as expressed by a coworker in health care: “It is alright to moan and groan in here. But when we go out to see the patients, we do that with dedication and great care.” Taking the idea of ambassadorship seriously, something that the interviewees certainly do, they contribute to organizational reputation and trust in a multitude of microprocesses, meetings and interactions that feed directly into strategic assets such as reputation, brand, and relationships with external stakeholders.
So far, we have given a number of positive examples of how employees’ communication may provide organizational value. Still, communication is just as prone to value destruction as it is to value creation. This was in fact the case in one of the studied organizations that went through a prolonged and turbulent period of reform. Due to scarce resources, high turn-over, accusations of malpractice, and silencing of members, as well as other coinciding circumstances, the employees chose to voice their concerns and criticism towards management in social and traditional media, thus fueling the image of an organization in deep crisis. This may have provided a short-term value for employees in terms of public and political attention. But, in the long run, these initiatives of “reverse ambassadorship” may cause considerable reputational damage and undermine internal and external trust in the organization.
The preceding examples illustrate how coworkers’ communication and interaction with managers, clients, and each other contributes to organizational goal achievement and could thus be conceptualized as strategic communication. From a constructionist perspective, it makes little sense to talk about strategic communication, or any other organizing process, without taking into consideration how these processes are constituted by certain actors—in this case coworkers. These assumptions are of course not new because we base our argumentation on a long tradition of theories of social structuration and social constructionism that are embraced by the CCO perspective. What is markedly different though is the societal and organizational settings where these communication processes take place. In postbureaucratic organizations, work is complex, highly social and interconnected, and image and brand are key resources. Taken together, this implies that communication has in many ways become even more essential to organizational success. We consequently need to acknowledge the vital importance of seeing all organizational members as actors that constitute and contribute to an organizations’ strategic communication. Listening, sharing information, contributing to an open communication climate and ambassadorship are just some prosaic examples of communicative actions that are performed by coworkers, often with little reflection, but that nevertheless are prerequisites for organizational goal attainment. As such, these actors should also be given due recognition.
Managers, coworkers, and strategic communication
The preceding results indicate that an organization’s capacity to communicate strategically is constituted by a multitude of subprocesses that take place between coworkers, managers, senior management, and external stakeholders on a daily basis. It is thus necessary to regard these processes of interaction not only as important in themselves, but also as constitutive of an organizations’ strategic communication and overall performance. Regarded from this perspective, it is somewhat remarkable that communicators do not dedicate much time to support leaders, for example, in their role as communicators. When communication professionals were asked what areas they work with most, internal meetings, external web, and communication with customers/consumers/citizens (i.e., external stakeholders), were ranked as the most prioritized areas. These areas were followed by intranet, branding, media relations, and then—in seventh position—leadership communication (support to leaders). Another interesting result in this context is that both managers and communication professionals perceive “leadership communication” as the most important communication area to focus on in order to achieve organizational goals. However, our empirical study also illustrates that it is not sufficient to focus merely on managers’ communication, it is also vital to include coworkers’ contribution to strategic communication. Consequently, if we consider that phenomena such as listening, trust, communication climate, conflict management and ambassadorship are in fact established in and by coworker interaction and communication activities, scholars as well as professional communicators need to pay closer attention to coworkers’ communication and how organizational strategic communication essentially relies upon all members’ communication activities and capability.
As discussed before, the CCO perspective emphasizes that organizations emerge from bottom-up rather than top-down activities. Coworkers and the polyphonic character of organizations are thus seen as just as important for study as managers and their top-down messages. However, these assumptions do not necessarily mean that managers and their communication are irrelevant—it is more a matter of focusing on both managers and coworkers rather than either or. Thus, if we are to study strategic communication—how communication contributes to the fulfillment of overall mission and goals—it is necessary to expand the idea of who are important communicators and what kind of communication activities are essential for study.
We tend to agree with the editors of The Routledge Handbook of Strategic Communication , Holtzhausen and Zerfass ( Citation 2015a ), who claim that work in this field is well under way, but it is by no means a mature field. It is also important to keep in mind that research development takes a long time and only 10 years have passed since the inaugural issue of IJSC . Still, the content analyses of published articles in International Journal of Strategic Communication show that there are some clear blind spots and underdeveloped areas for researchers in strategic communication to work on. As regards research topics, the majority of research still seems to be closely linked to traditional public relations issues. We would not go so far as to argue that public relations scholars have “invaded” the field of strategic communication, but there is definitely a need to integrate a greater variety of disciplines than hitherto, not least from the fields of organizational theory and social theory, in order to develop the field further and gain more deep knowledge of a complex phenomenon.
As we see it, public relations is an important part of the wider area of strategic communication that embraces all aspects of an organization’s communication—internal as well as external. Throughout this article we have also argued for a broadened view of strategic communicators and a stronger emphasis on communication roles. Following the holistic approach—which is perceived as significant for the research field of strategic communication, it should be clear that an organization’s communication function and its activities only represent a very small proportion of the communication carried out in and by that organization. Hence, managers and coworkers, should be given much more attention in the study of strategic communication.
Regarding methods and empirical material, there is a problem of small-scale studies mainly relying on a rather limited set of methods (survey, content analysis, and case study). Consequently, we have urged for more large-scale studies and the use of a greater variety of methods—especially ethnographic, close-up studies where observations can give more knowledge about the actual practices of strategic communication. Many studies hitherto reveal what practitioners say what they do when they work with strategic communication, but there is not much knowledge about what practitioners actually do when strategic communication is materialized. Another concern is the lack of reflective meta-theoretical discussion and the domination of positivism and managerialism, which may lead to taken-for-granted ideas of what “good” science is and how it should be conducted. In sum, we have suggested an expanded scope in relation to several aspects—research topics, strategic communication agency, interdisciplinarity, methods, and philosophy of social science.
In this article, we have also made a humble attempt to present a theoretical framework and an empirical study that broadens the understanding of strategic communication. We have employed CCO as a theoretical platform to discuss the fundamental concepts of communication and strategy in order to contribute with further development of the field. From a CCO perspective, the primary question is not how communication can be used as a tool to reach business goals. Rather, the main question is how communication constitutes organizations and society. It could also be argued that the CCO approach comes with a stronger focus on the actual processes and practices of strategic communication—something we still know too little about, as previously mentioned. As our empirical study shows, managers and coworkers potentially have a central role in accomplishing an organizations’ strategic communication efforts. But we also saw that coworkers’ and managers’ communication with colleagues and external stakeholders is far from uncomplicated, as contradictory demands have to be balanced in a variety of situations. Ideals and standard advice emphasizing, e.g., the importance of listening, creating trust or dialogues are thus not easy to translate into coherent practices when faced with the complexities of everyday life in organizations. Paradoxes and tensions, therefore, also need to be embraced if we are to gain a more holistic understanding of strategic communication.
A valid counterargument to our line of reasoning could be that the blind spots, biases, and shortcomings we have identified are not unique to the field of strategic communication. Put differently, lack of large-scale studies and use of multimethods, a tendency to favor management interests, and too little meta-theoretical reflections and productive dialogue among researchers from different traditions, also characterize other “immature” fields in social sciences and business administration (e.g., marketing). However, in contrast to many other disciplines, the fundamental idea of strategic communication is to have a holistic approach, integrating several different disciplines and perspectives for a better understanding of how communication can contribute to organizational goals. We believe that a one-sided focus on managerial interests and a narrow scope in terms of methods, topics, and communication agency will be a strong barrier towards fulfilling this holistic and interdisciplinary ambition.
Another guilty counterargument could be that the pluralism and expanded scope, that we suggest, may lead to a problematic eclecticism and lack of coherence (cf. Nothhaft, Citation 2016 ), i.e., that anything could go into the field of strategic communication. That is, of course, not the vision we have for strategic communication. On the contrary, we envision strategic communication as a discipline that embraces complexity and interdisciplinarity, not for the sake of it, but as a way to fully grasp the richness and nuances of organizational life and communication. This, however, should not be done at the expense of core ideas such as strategy, goal orientation or societal impact, that rather need to be more accentuated than until now. In particular, we welcome a stronger emphasis on the concept of communication. Human interaction and communication processes lies at the very core of strategic communication. Still, these processes tend to be marginalized in strategic communication research and this is highly disquieting. Considering communication as one of the most central concepts that configures the discipline, it will certainly be a challenge to develop as a coherent field of research if communication is disregarded or seldom explicitly addressed in research labeled strategic communication.
A third counterargument, related to the second, could be that greater pluralism may just lead to contradictory and fragmented knowledge and aggravate the problem of lack of cumulative knowledge (cf. Nothhaft, Citation 2016 ). However, strategic communication is a very complex phenomenon and if we are to reach a better, more nuanced understanding of it, we need a greater variety of methods and theoretical perspectives. Further, when researchers with different perspectives meet and debate, the outcomes can be new and constructive ideas. We agree with Deetz ( Citation 2000 ) that there is a value in differences and that “productive conflicts are more important than unitary integration” (p. 107). As concerns theory development, we would actually like to encourage researchers in strategic communication to strive for more complexity and less simplification (e.g., best practices and simplistic, linear models). Tsoukas ( Citation 2017 ) pinpoints that a large problem in organization studies is the tendency to simplify complex phenomena rather than produce theoretical complexity.
As mentioned before, we would especially welcome more research from a critical perspective, where taken-for-granted ideas, such as the notion of organizational goals, are examined and questioned. For instance, are organizational goals necessarily the same as management goals? Such a question would mean that a critical power perspective is introduced to the field, which is a perspective that so far is more or less absent in the field. We would also like to see more critical studies of the phenomenon of strategic communication itself, or as Christensen and Svensson ( Citation 2017 ) put it: […] “to study strategic communication as a central institution in society and, from that perspective, challenge its existing practices and assumptions” (p. 181). One may ask reflective and critical questions such as: “What are the potential negative effects of strategic communication efforts from a societal and democratic perspective?”
To sum up, our vision of the development of strategic communication as a research field is a richer and broader field that can produce nuanced knowledge about the complex phenomenon of strategic communication. This implies that researchers within the field not only conduct traditional research from a managerial perspective (that is of course important and legitimate), but also (1) pay more attention to groups other than managers, such as coworkers and first-line managers, (2) adopt a more reflexive and critical approach to core concepts such as strategy, communication, and organization, and (3) embrace the fact that organizational life is messy and nonrational, which would lead to an interest in contradictions and paradoxes in organizations.
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From strategy to corporate communication strategy: A conceptualisation
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Abstract Strategic management theory differentiates between enterprise, corporate, business, functional and operational strategy. Corporate communication strategy is conceptualised as a functional strategy, providing focus and direction to the corporate communication function. Acting as a framework for the communication plans developed to implement the strategy, it makes the corporate communication function relevant in the strategic management process by providing the link between key strategic issues facing the organisation and communication plans. Corporate communication strategy is seen to be the outcome of a strategic thinking process by senior communicators and top managers taking strategic decisions with regard to the identification and management of, and communication with, strategic stakeholders.1
KEYWORDS: strategy, corporate communication, public relations, corporate communication strategy, public relations strategy, strategic management, strategic corporate communication, public relations theory
The concept 'strategy' is well-known in management theory and practice. The concept `corporate communication strategy', however, has received little attention in the public relations (corporate communication) body of knowledge. There is mention of a strategic role for the corporate communication practitioner, but few explanations or descriptions of what corporate communication strategy means in a strategic organisational context.2 Van Riel is of the opinion that academic knowledge with regard to the strategic management of an organisation's communication is relatively limited.3
Although the corporate communication industry acknowledges that strategy should be an integral part of its communication programmes, few practitioners seem to understand the meaning of strategy. `Strategy and the communications world, and particularly the PR part of that world, just do not seem to go together. It is certainly unusual to come across a memorable, cogent, sustained, and effective communications strategy. Not a brand strategy. Not a marketing strategy. Not an advertising strategy - a communication strategy'.4
The problem seems to lie in the application of 'strategy' to corporate communication issues,2 or even in the understanding of 'issues' itself. It might well be that the latter is seen by practitioners as referring to communication issues only, without consideration of the organisation's key strategic issues. The purpose of this article is to stimulate debate on the meaning of the concept 'strategy' in a corporate communication context, as called for by Tibble. 4
DEFINITION OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
The use of the term `corporate communication' is preferred because of the...
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Journal of Communication Management
ISSN : 1363-254X
Article publication date: 31 December 2003
Strategic management theory differentiates between enterprise, corporate, business, functional and operational strategy. Corporate communication strategy is conceptualised as a functional strategy, providing focus and direction to the corporate communication function. Acting as a framework for the communication plans developed to implement the strategy, it makes the corporate communication function relevant in the strategic management process by providing the link between key strategic issues facing the organisation and communication plans. Corporate communication strategy is seen to be the outcome of a strategic thinking process by senior communicators and top managers taking strategic decisions with regard to the identification and management of, and communication with, strategic stakeholders.
- Corporate communication
- Public relations
- Corporate communication strategy
- Public relations strategy
- Strategic management
- Strategic corporate communication
- Public relations theory
Steyn, B. (2003), "From strategy to corporate communication strategy: A conceptualisation", Journal of Communication Management , Vol. 8 No. 2, pp. 168-183. https://doi.org/10.1108/13632540410807637
Copyright © 2003, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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How to Communicate Your Company’s Strategy Effectively
- David Lancefield
Ditch the lofty purpose statements and lengthy slide decks.
For too long, communicating strategy has been an afterthought. Executives have shared long, bombastic documents or withheld critical information and expected people to just “get it.” And it hasn’t worked. Greater external uncertainty, collaboration, employee anxiety, and organizational openness demands a change of approach. The author presents five actions that will improve the clarity and quality of communication, enabling stakeholders to make a more substantive and meaningful contribution to the strategy.
Most people can’t recall the strategy of the organization they work for. Even the executives and managers responsible for strategy struggle, with one study reporting that only 28% of them could list three strategic priorities.
It’s not surprising. Many organizations don’t have a strategy. The few that do find it hard to communicate effectively, as it requires engaging with a wide range of stakeholders in different situations. They find it easier and less risky to issue lofty purpose statements , describe big goals, launch initiatives, or publish fixed plans instead.
Communicating strategy clearly increases the chances of an organization “winning” by helping people decide where to focus their attention, energy, resources, and capabilities. Unclear communication results in wasted effort from lack of alignment and confusion, which leads to inertia.
If you’re embarking on communicating your organization’s strategy, here are five ways to do it clearly.
Communications sometimes focus on one aspect of strategy to the detriment of others. For example, they lay out how to beat the competition but forget to address how best to serve customers. Or they describe an exciting vision but leave out important details of how the organization will deliver on it. They outline the trends, dynamics, and disruptions but fail to clearly articulate the choices they’ve made to address them.
The same goes for the audience. Executives prioritize communicating with employees and investors and then forget to engage with wider stakeholders, such as regulators or community groups, until they raise questions or objections.
To combat this narrow focus, a chief of staff I worked with developed a central repository of answers to frequently asked questions about her company’s strategy and highlighted the most important ones for each stakeholder group. This better prepared her to customize the message for the audience, which increased the efficacy of the communications. She also invited colleagues to contribute. That improved not just the quality of the answers, but also the consistency of messages across the organization, as those contributors felt a greater sense of ownership.
To communicate strategy comprehensively, you’ll need to:
- Visualize your ambition. To create intrigue, spark imagination , and build excitement in a better future, focus attention on the opportunities and possibilities ahead. ( “At our best we will become…”)
- Describe the contribution you want to make. Articulate the impact of the strategy on customers, wider stakeholders (e.g., citizens), and systems (e.g., the environment). (“We will make a significant contribution to our shareholders and the society we operate in by…”)
- Challenge the status quo. Encourage people to see the merits in trying a new path, overcoming personal and organizational inertia . (“We’re not serving our customers as best we can because…”)
- Instill belief in the organization. Signal confidence in the organization’s ability to get there while acknowledging there will be some changes. (“We’ve shown what we’re capable of before when we’ve applied the right mindset…”)
- Focus attention on what matters. Give people the opportunity to make the decisions they’re most capable of making about where to focus their time in line with the strategy — a process author Roger Martin calls “ strategic choice chartering .” (“In my business area, we’ve chosen to focus on serving [x] customers in [these geographies] because [y] and we’ll win by being the best at [z]. The next choice is how and where to…”)
- Outline what will change. Encourage people to start making changes to the way they work. (“To deliver on the strategy, we’ll need to invest in these capabilities, deploy resources in new areas, and change the way we work.”)
- Set out the metrics. Clarify the behaviors, activities, and outcomes that are central to the strategy and assign metrics to them. (“We will measure our success in delivering on this strategy by the following metrics at the organizational and individual levels.”)
- Explain the thinking, logic, and evidence that supports the choices. Build credibility and confidence in the ambition, choices, and investments. (“This strategy is based on a number of important data points and assumptions.”)
- Describe the process. Instill confidence in the way you’ve developed the strategy. (“We developed this strategy in open dialogue throughout the process, inviting ideas and suggestions.”)
In most cases it’s not necessary to do this in one go. The trick is to combine the right message with the audience using the most effective medium, listening attentively to the responses and contributions and refining the communication (if not aspects of the strategy) as required; it’s certainly not a fixed construct .
Make it personal
Communications often paint a corporate picture of the world that doesn’t actually convey what’s expected of the audience — or how it benefits them.
Steve, a CEO I came to work with, walked off stage feeling great after presenting the new strategy to his team. The rehearsals he did had paid off. He landed all the important points and effectively included personal anecdotes and humor. Or so he thought.
As they shared their reactions with me, I could see that the audience members were less convinced: “That was some performance,” “It’s clear what the future looks like. But I have no idea what it means for me. What should I change? How will I change?,” “How will this strategy help my career?,” “The other executive committee members were nodding, but are they truly on board?”
Take four actions to avoid this scenario:
- Show that you’re implementing the strategy yourself through the choices you make. Prioritize spending your time, attention, and energy on the activities that best enable the strategy. Talk through areas of confusion or disagreement in your team in order to build alignment and commitment. Reflect on how your decisions and words are consistent with the strategy.
- Describe the new activities, capabilities, and behaviors that enable the strategy, and establish pilots to start rolling them out.
- Tackle nostalgia, fears, or frictions that might hold people back, such as, “We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, so what’s different this time?” or “How can we improve our speed to market when we have to wade through so much bureaucracy?”
- Help people upskill — for example, through training programs (which should include teaching people about strategy, not just their functional skillsets), coaching, or mentoring.
Match the message to the moment
Communicating strategy often involves long, bombastic slide presentations or brief, bland statements online. By themselves, these rarely create the excitement, engagement, advocacy, or recall required to effect change.
Instead, design your communication as a series of engaging and dynamic exercises — with an emphasis on brevity and clarity. This requires three steps:
- Map out the critical or “ imprintable ” moments — including the people involved — where you want to communicate strategy. This could be an interview with a recruit, a pitch to investors, a board meeting, a townhall presentation, a team huddle, or a performance appraisal.
- Decide what messages you want to emphasize . If you’re with a potential partner organization, you might want to focus on the ambition and opportunity ahead, whereas with a group of managers, you’ll want to articulate the choices and changes you’ve made and encourage them to make their own.
- Select the tool or asset that best works for the people, moment, and message . For a one-on-conversation, you might use a two-minute (or even shorter ) elevator pitch, or an anecdote about the organization’s advantage. In a larger group setting, a visualization that describes elements of the strategy, or a story that illustrates how the organization will overcome the challenges it faces, works well. In an email, you might use a one-paragraph summary of the strategy, along with some answers to frequently-asked questions, and a personal reflection on what it means to the you.
As an example of online communication, telecommunications company BT uses a single visual on its website to connect purpose, ambition, values, and strategy. BP (British Petroleum) set out its strategic narrative in a well-written press release, while carmaker Renault presented its “ Renaulation ” plan in a highly visual, content-rich presentation.
Empower people through transparency
The responsibility for communicating strategy is often restricted to a select few, based on two mistaken beliefs: Only the top team has responsibility for strategy and strategy is too complex for others to communicate. Information is also restricted based on two other mistaken beliefs: Too much detail will distract people and competitors will gain an advantage from knowing more about the strategy.
This approach limits the opportunity for employees, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders to contribute to, advocate for, and deliver on the strategy. They want to hear from people they work closely with — not just the top team — and to understand the full picture.
One CFO I worked with made a point to explain on calls and in meetings how what she and her team were doing contributed to the strategy. She also encouraged people involved in the development of strategy to play a prominent role in the program of communications and to act as advocates in their daily activities. This ranged from people who contributed ideas and perspectives in crowdsourcing events to those who played a central role in designing the strategy (including representatives from corporate development, sales, customer service, operations, and HR).
Help people understand the strategy and make their own choices by:
- Sharing as much of the strategy as possible , explaining the critical decisions, assumptions made, and uncertainties. Provide the assets and information in one place so people can select what they’re interested in.
- Describing how important decisions enable the strategy , such as a new investment, closure, restructure, or partnership.
- Communicating progress honestly. Share updates on what’s working and what’s challenging and invite people to contribute ideas.
- Holding back detail wisely. Only restrict information if it has the potential to overwhelm or confuse people or undermine commercial activity (e.g., a potential acquisition or new venture).
- Creating open channels. Make it easy for people to share ideas , raise challenges, and ask questions.
Repeat, listen, and refresh
After the launch of a strategy, life often goes back to “normal” as people revert to old habits, practices, and routines — especially in many large, traditional companies. Communications fade away. Apart from the wasted effort, it leaves the organization less resilient and more susceptible to disruption.
Strategy needs to evolve in a world that is more volatile and uncertain than before. Its communication, therefore, needs to be both systematic and flexible. This requires you to:
- Map out clear sequences of communications with different stakeholder groups in different moments to ensure clarity and consistency of messages. Research suggests it takes about two months to embed a new habit, even with the best communications and incentives — so this needs to be a sustained effort and include some repetition. You’ll know it’s resonating when stakeholders start to use the same language, and, most importantly, start making their own choices about where to focus and how to work differently.
- Ask questions to encourage participation and overcome obstacles. Think, “What can we do to accelerate the changes?” or “What can we remove to make our lives easier?” Listen carefully to the answers.
- Monitor weak signals of change within and outside the organization that should change the content and nature of communication (let alone the strategy). For example, if there’s a change in consumer sentiment or aggressive competitor activity, communications should call out the resilience of the strategy (or the reasons for changes).
- Surface and highlight success stories to reinforce the messages, maintain interest, and build commitment.
For too long, communicating strategy has been an afterthought. Executives have shared long, bombastic documents or withheld critical information and expected people to just “get it.” And it hasn’t worked. Greater external uncertainty, collaboration, employee anxiety, and organizational openness demands a change of approach. These five actions will improve the clarity and quality of communication, enabling people to make a more substantive and meaningful contribution to the strategy.
- David Lancefield is a catalyst, strategist, and coach for leaders. He’s advised more than 40 CEOs and hundreds of executives, was a senior partner at Strategy&, and is a guest lecturer at the London Business School. Find him on LinkedIn (@davidclancefield) or at davidlancefield.com , where you can sign up for his free “Mastering Big Moments” workbook .
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