Informal internal “lobbying”—whether in hallways or after work at coffee shops or fitness centers—is a savvy way for corporate communicators to build relationships and increase organizational effectiveness, according to a Baylor University study.
According to Marlene Neill, assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media in Baylor’s College of Arts & Science, “While other scholars have touted being a member of the ‘C-suite’ as the ideal for public relations and corporate communicators, the Baylor study shows that being an influential insider does not always require being in the board room with the ‘chiefs.’”
According to Neill, “intelligence-gathering” is best done by having a seat at multiple “decision tables” at different levels in a company—and then sharing that information in varied settings, often informally. Doing so bridges gaps between the rank and file and executives—vital to helping companies dodge mistakes, protect reputations and guard against working at cross-purposes internally.
Neill’s study — “Building buy-in: The need for internal relationships and informal coalitions” — appeared in the journal Public Relations Review.
Neill conducted 22 hours of in-depth, recorded interviews with 30 senior executives representing multiple departments within four US companies: one company in financial services, one in telecommunications, one in franchising and one in energy. Among those interviewed to get their perspective of public relations were division or brand presidents, marketing and sales vice presidents and directors or managers in marketing, public affairs and public relations. Areas represented included investor relations, human resources, finance and operations.
One hurdle communications professionals face at division-leadership level is “a lack of formal power,” the study showed.
“We realized that our business leaders were listening to us, but we didn’t have that ball all the way punched into the end zone,” one corporate communications executive told Neill. The game-changer was “informal coalitions” of the sort that stem from talks in break rooms, coffee shops or fitness centers. But recruiting allies that way may mean letting someone else take credit for ideas, the executive said.
Some interviewees said an effective strategy was through cross-departmental teams, with their meetings open to those in public relations. Similarly, public relations officers would open their doors to them and invite them to be consultants. “The energy company would actually send (public relations) people out in hard hat and steel-toed shoes to learn about the business,” Neill says.
But collaboration is not always that direct, she adds.
“People deny there are internal politics, but the more you interview them, some of these real stories came out,” she said. “You have those doors you can’t get behind, those assistants or receptionists that control access — or executives are in meetings a lot of the time. People in PR and marketing, as well as in other departments, catch top executives in the hall, at Starbucks, at fitness centers. There was a lot of calling on the cell . . . They knew where they could find them.
“A lot of decisions are made after five.”