Communications Devolution Or Revolution?

It’s trendy for big companies to devolve authority to operating units, and the jury is still out on whether or not making them compete as collections of smaller independent ones makes any sense (the management consultants who came up with the plans will be long gone before there’s a verdict).

But it’s already clear that giving marketing communicators responsibility for overarching corporate communications is dead on arrival.

First off, they’re just two different animals, by definition: Business marketers talk to customers who might buy stuff and to those with whom a company is already doing business. This is incomprehensibly important because buying things is what keeps them and everyone else employed. Therefore, marketing communications is often an adjunct to sales, which makes perfect sense.

Corporate communications has a broader remit, tasked with talking to investors, employees, suppliers and partners, and non-business entities (like universities and NGOs), all of whom “buy” ideas about a company. This is also really important because it helps brands differentiate, adds to equity valuations, and makes everyone more loyal. Corporate communications is an adjunct to every other department in the company.

It has been fashionable for some time now to default to the communicators at operating units to manage both functions with a glib “that’s where the money’s made” comment to explain why. Staff and budget at the corporate level is often reduced to what’s essential to cover financial reporting requirements and catering to the egos of executives who want publicity.

It’s a mistake, for at least three reasons that are structural to how work gets done:

The timeframes are wrong. Customers don’t buy promises or pay for things that don’t exist; they have immediate needs that need to be addressed which, ideally, matches with the products and solutions sellers have in stock and ready to sell to them. Any perspectives on the future are really extrapolated from the present, usually in “use cases” of how those products and solutions would function. Operating units need to communicate this information even if it’s limited to statements of what is (with the occasional buzzwords about purpose or something else thrown in for good measure).

Other stakeholders are all about buying promises, especially those who “pay” for them with their belief, goodwill, and loyalty. Some make this distinction by describing brands as present tense perceptions and reputations as confidence in future tense performance. Corporate communicators necessarily look at the future and deduce back to the present, usually via what if statements on why and how product and solutions might function. It makes no sense for operating units to communicate this information; worse, it’s antithetical to their core and necessary purpose. 

Different planning tools. The core of any viable marketing communications plan is a product release calendar, which is based on the availability of products and solutions for shipping and implementation (and closely coordinated with dates for sales targets and, by association, buying cycles for major customers). Sure, they consider things like holidays and major trade events, but they otherwise look inward at what matters to a company, and when. Operating unit communicators must invent ways to bring such glorified product catalogs to life. This usually means defaulting to functional performance specs which, by definition and with good reason, limit the audiences to whom they can talk.

Corporate communicators need to be aware of what the operating units are selling, but their purview should reach far beyond that internal calendar to look outward and see all of the requirements of external stakeholders: For instance, when are sustainability reports compiled and issued? What are the major themes, and conclusions, media are covering? How has the chatter on social media about employee conditions evolved and what’s coming? Corporate-level topics (or issues) get asserted and ideally owned based on a different timing and planning approach that requires far different content.

Saying something memorableDeclaring that a product or solution is the greatest thing since sliced bread isn’t thought leadership, just as overviewing the conditions of a present tense market isn’t terribly memorable. Operating units are actually disincentivized from saying things that break through the clutter because they can’t risk getting too far ahead of their customers. They also can’t share things that are underway or imperfect since communications are intended to describe things that work; therefore, it’s really tough for marketing communicators do accomplish more than describe the status quo, which is rarely newsworthy.

Corporate communicators should do the exact opposite and put out content that is bold, contrarian, and risks pushback; there’s a case to be made that if you aren’t risking being wrong or offending someone, your thoughts don’t lead. Corporate-level content should speak on behalf of the businesses overall and insert the company into conversations that otherwise ignore product-based communications. This includes sharing the narrative of research and innovation and being transparent on the ups and downs of development. Business units need to present things as if they’re always right; corporate communicators need to earn credibility by revealing when things are sometimes wrong.

I’m reminded of the old adage the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is a misquote; “sum” should be “besides,” according to the guy who wrote it, and speaks less to an additive mathematical outcome and more to the emergence of something different from something else.

Applied to the business communications, it means that branding content distributed to operating units doesn’t necessarily add up to a broader, coherent or compelling identity. The mechanisms of how marketing communications operates, again by legitimate necessity, simply don’t allow for it, and all those shared slogans, proof points, and beautiful graphics are often included as awkward, inauthentic add-ons to the stuff that really matters to them.

It also means that relegating corporate communicators to investor relations support and stroking exec egos is a missed opportunity, as is tasking them with promoting some permutation of “purpose” campaigns which tend to all be the same and don’t legitimately draw on those very activities underway at the operating units. 

Instead, I vote for a revitalization of corporate communications as a function, and inspiring it with the goal of achieving the forward-looking, outward-facing, and memorable content that complements the work of the business units so, together, something unique emerges from that integration. Something big, different, authentic, and compelling.

I say we make business units as agile and successful as possible, but let’s stop expecting them to accomplish things that simply aren’t within their purview. Enough with the devolution.

We need a revolution.

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About Jonathan Salem Baskin

Author, Advisor, Agitator