2018 is the year to build your communications leadership portfolio
Corporate communications can get a bad rap sometimes. Images of Malcolm Tucker screaming expletives when a political photo opp goes wrong. Siobhan Sharp from PR agency Perfect Curve, telling us to “break open the Google juice and go viral”. But we communications professionals have a sense of humour. We really do. So we laugh along with everyone else, knowing that those caricatures are about as close to what we actually do, as my four year old is to getting her own car.
There is a growing movement among communications professionals to make 2018 a break-through year. We are talking serious #goals. Tired of the old cliches (fact: we never quaff champers — at least not at work…), we are looking for ways to improve our credibility and visibility within our organisation, take on more leadership roles and reinforce the benefits of our unique professional contribution. This post is focused on those of us with in-house roles, but should be equally valid for those looking to scale the agency heights as well.
Top of the leadership to do list for me this year is building a bridge between good communications practice and developing organisational character/culture. The worlds of Organisational Development, people development and employee engagement can all benefit from proper integration with and even leadership from, people with thoughtful, strategic communications skills and insight- it ain’t just an HR thang.
Most organisations already know that in order to nurture desired values and behaviours in colleagues, staff and partners, they need access to communications and engagement expertise in order for the messaging to ring true, the narrative to be meaningful and the calls to action to have any impact — BUT crucially, communications professionals can also play a vital leadership role in developing the right OD, staff engagement and leadership strategies to start with.
Think about the skills and experience we have in communications that make us ripe for a broader cultural development and leadership role:
- We are comfortable working through change. If there’s one thing you learn as an up and coming PR exec, it’s that plans can change on a dime. I can still remember changing an entire press release for a big launch at 10:00pm the night before the announcement. So that’s one type of change. Of course, there’s also change on a macro scale — think about going through a merger, a restructure, a closure etc. We’re used to navigating ourselves through these waters, and our immediate team, and developing appropriate, sensitive messaging to help our colleagues and communities get through a tricky time. So we can think about putting that kind of adaptability to work on an organisational scale too.
- We understand what makes good leaders great. We watch the headlines for our job. We listen to speeches, analyse body language, contextualise decisions and develop opinions. We coach our leaders, often informally, but often beyond our immediate remit of “media training”. We’re not just there to make people look good in front of the cameras, we want to understand people’s intentions, their leadership platforms and how they can convey these in an authentic way.
- We understand that values are lived, not laminated. Yes, we may produce some creative materials that speak to the commitments of our organisation and way its people behave, but that’s the mid-point of the journey, not the end goal. The starting point? Creating those values in partnership with our colleagues, customers, users and partners. The end goal? Making sure those values, behaviours and goals are lived every day within and beyond the walls of our buildings. Ask any communications professional with internal audiences and they will groan when asked for “a poster and a quick video” as the sum total of a values and vision exercise. They know the real work lies in the discussions and decisions that shape the trajectory of where we work and how we lead. And in the advocacy skills that bring these discussions to life.
- We coach others all the time. As the in-house experts in our chosen field, we are often called upon to coach colleagues and executives in areas of communications — media appearances, public meetings, customer conversations, staff discussions etc. So we’re adept at navigating the ego minefield, at working with others to bring out their authentic voice, at helping them bridge the gap between their own expertise and the way that others may receive it. This is supremely helpful when considering a coaching and advocacy mindset on a broader scale.
Taking charge of a portfolio that includes communications, OD, employee engagement and perhaps even leadership development can help us when it comes to those 2018 aims of a) increased credibility b) better visibility and c) reinforcing our unique contribution at work. It broadens our scope, in a way that feels intuitive for many of us and enables us to get stuck into the work that can really help build our organisation’s character, purpose and values.
I studied these types of issues on the NHS Nye Bevan executive healthcare leadership programme, and it opened my eyes to the potential we have as leaders, if we think a bit more laterally about how our communications expertise can be put to best use. But we’re still in the earliest stages of this as an industry.
Perhaps we let imposter syndrome into our thinking, that our profession isn’t “grown up” enough to warrant meaty leadership roles within an organisation. This can unfortunately be reinforced by out-dated attitudes and approaches from others, but the good news is that this is changing for the better. I’ve been fortunate to see and experience first hand the way the NHS values its senior communications people and there is even more scope for us if we consider the broader portfolios we can potentially lead.
Let’s consider 2018 a tipping point for the communications industry. It’s time for more of us to step up and work with enlightened employers who are ready to give us more leadership and advocacy responsibility. And yes, we can still produce that shiny poster. But only after we’ve finished changing the world.