By Gary Grates
Imagine that instead of recommending an annual check up, your doctor said, “Just keep taking some aspirin and let’s just wait until you’re really sick before you come see me.”
If, instead of recommending exercise and a sound diet, your doctor said, “Just take some vitamins and let’s not bother designing a healthy regimen until you’re overweight and have sky-high cholesterol.” Imagine this same doctor, knowing your arteries were severely blocked, saying, “I can really bring the greatest value after you’ve had a massive heart attack. For the time being, just keep on doing what you’ve been doing.”
Of course, no doctor would talk that way, or even think that way. After all, what people in their right minds would ever seek or respect that physician’s advice and treatment? Who would put their health in that doctor’s hands?
Yet, all-too-many communications professionals essentially offer that type of advice in precisely that manner! And their employers too often (unwittingly) encourage it.
In a business environment in which the anticipation, diagnosis, and preemption of challenges is of paramount importance, many communicators remain content to stand idly by until, in medical parlance, the patient is being wheeled into the operating room for emergency surgery. Then they spring into action! With luck, the patient can still be saved.
It’s about what you do, not what you say
In today’s competitive, fast-paced business environment, the tactical-mindset that once passed for expert communications programming can be neither accepted nor tolerated. Today, public relations and other communications disciplines must serve as part of an organization’s management model—much as is typically the case with legal and human resources. That is, communications should be viewed as a critical component of the decision-making and strategy apparatus—not a “mop up” function that’s brought in after the damage has already been done.
We must offer solutions that attack the disease, so to speak, that goes right at the cause, not merely provide a bunch of activities meant to address only the symptoms. It means moving beyond the message right into the types of actions or decisions necessary to convey the right position.
Alas, despite everything we’ve learned about strategic communications over the past two decades or more, many corporations remain analogous to stubborn patients who refuse to see their doctors despite knowing better. What’s worse in this case is that the communications counselor is too often complicit, willing to continue focusing on the latest technology (i.e., blogs), quarterly financial announcements, and corporate videos while the organization’s very viability comes under threat from factors ranging from competitive pressures to globalization.
Now, more than ever, corporations and the communicators who advise them must once and for all break out of the old, limiting models of behavior and recognize that communications only makes a real difference when it’s consultative and initiatory— not tactical and reactive.
Aspirin or penicillin?
It is incumbent upon today’s communications professional to aspire to more than just “doing no harm.” Communications is uniquely qualified to help corporate managements operate in an environment in which constituent dialogue, crisis prevention and mitigation, and product and service differentiation are of utmost importance.
This means a change of behavior is needed among both communicators and corporate managements.
Communicators need to “step up”— only by staying current on industry issues and competitive challenges, and by viewing the world through a prism of business growth and reputation management (rather than procedural excellence alone), will communicators prove that their functional expertise is of true consequence.
Corporate managements, on the other hand, need to stop viewing public relations and communications as a “function” that is separate and distinct from the management model. Doing so marginalizes the value of communications, and undercuts the company’s ability to achieve meaningful goals pertaining to reputation, growth and transformation.
Reverting back to medical analogies, many corporations continue to consider communications the equivalent of aspirin; a resource of greatest value after an event (whether it’s a jolt to company reputation, a major crisis, or a competitive blow). In the communications-as-aspirin model, communications is limited to treating organizational symptoms, rather than their root causes.
The expectations all around should be higher. Managements should instead demand that communications serve as “penicillin,” able to tackle the root causes of management, strategy, internal or external relationships, issues or problems. Like penicillin, a confident communications professional’s input might be initially hard to swallow or even distasteful. Yet, just as often, it’s absolutely imperative to improving organizational health, or even preventing negative symptoms from festering to begin with.
Real world examples
Consider the following “ripped from the headline” examples, and whether communications was likely playing the role of “penicillin” or “aspirin”:
• Enron’s renegade managers and runaway trader function, manipulating financial data and power markets until, before anyone really knew what was going on, the company imploded, employees lost retirement savings, and leaders went to jail.
• Hewlett-Packard’s board and senior-management literally spying on board members to ferret out media leaks.
• K-Mart’s slide into oblivion having more to do with a leadership led “apathy” that resulted in second-tier stores, cheap merchandise, little or no standards, and weak employee service.
• Johnson & Johnson’s ability to not only keep Tylenol in business, but to thrive even after the “Tylenol recall.”
• Pepsi’s handling of allegations involving the alleged finding of syringes in the soft drink maker’s soda cans.
• GM’s decision to eliminate the Oldsmobile brand and move the story forward focusing on the a new portfolio and eliminating distractions and unnecessary investment in something that was no longer relevant to consumers
• McDonald’s reality check of its own brand resulting in efforts to enhance its menu with more nutritional fare, a welcome approach back to basics for consistent hot food, clean restaurants, and quick service, and novel programs such introducing “built-in” restaurant gyms for youth.
Certainly, no one would be sufficiently naïve to suggest that Communications alone could have prevented the first three incidences, or that Communications alone prevented the second two incidences from evolving into full-fledged crises, or that Communications alone was influential in allowing the last two organizations to refocus its business and thus its narrative. Yet, it is safe to assume that ethical, voice-of-reason communications played no role in Enron, little role in H-P, and limited role in K-Mart, while it definitely played a very strong role at Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi, GM, and McDonald’s.
An unwelcome voice
Now, the profession is faced with another opinion—management consultants. These are the folks who typically have the CEO’s ear and budget and who believe that communications is nothing more than “wordsmithing” and tactical mediums—e-mail, town hall meeting, press statements, videos, etc., or anything that promotes their work inside and outside the organization. Staying true to their analytical and haughty upbringing, they often reduce the importance of communications and with it, reduce an organization’s chances to effectively and successfully implement strategy, initiatives, and priorities.
How? By totally missing the human element! By being blind and deaf to the real world—that is, how things are seen by the very people that drive a business—employees, customers, media, etc. This is a dangerous and ominous voice that needs to be muted and marginalized by having a strong, reasoned point-of-view, conviction, and a strategic comprehension of organizational communications in today’s world.
It’s time for managements and communications professionals alike to examine their own approaches to communications— and to determine if communications in their organizations are dispensing disease-attacking penicillin or symptom-abating aspirin:
When does communications get involved in strategic planning and decision making: before or after decisions are made?
When you do get involved, is the focus more on tactical output (newsletters, e-mails, and campaigns) or strategic input (decision-making, scenario planning, positioning, reputation management, competitive intelligence)?
In terms of sophistication, is Communications on par with Legal and HR counsel?
Do you gauge communications results by business growth or “clicks and clips?” By industry reputation or by activity reports? By employee engagement (retention, development, productivity) or the number of posters and mugs distributed during the new “campaign?
Finally…consider the fact that if you suddenly become ill, your doctor is likely your first call. If something goes wrong in your organization—or you’re trying to prevent something from going wrong to begin with—when does the chief communicator get called?
When the call ultimately does get made, what will we offer: penicillin or aspirin?
Gary F. Grates is president and global managing director of Edelman Change and Employee Engagement, the organizational communications unit of Edelman. Prior to Edelman, he was vice president of communications/North America and global leader of internal communications at General Motors Corporation.