ITL #297 - Communications: no fixed abode

2 weeks, 4 days ago

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Does it matter where in the organisational structure Communications sits? And what does flexibility of location say about the discipline? By Kristina Blissett.



Where does the Communications function sit in your, or your client’s, organisational structure?  Within in a wider Marketing, Communications and Business Development operation?  Part of HR?  Maverick teams embedded in regions?  Speak up at the back – was  that really a split function with Internal Communications sitting in HR and External Communications in Corporate Affairs?  Let’s come back to how that works in practice.

Suffice to say that Communications doesn’t have a common home in the corporate structure (or consistent representation at the executive management level, come to that, but one thing at a time).  Functions like Finance, HR, Legal, etc. all seem to have a deserved permanent location whereas Communications is more like a mobile home or caravan – it can justifiably be located in almost any part of the corporate structure, and also be towed away to a new reporting line fairly easily. 

Now as long as the Communications function has a clear purpose it should not matter where it sits.  But could it settle down somewhere permanent that is also echoed across the majority of companies and sectors?  Does this ‘no fixed abode’ status imply something deeper about how much it is valued, understood and even affect the way it operates and the influence it carries? 

Trusted expert adviser

Let’s consider crisis communications: the classic business situation where Communications comes into its own as a trusted expert adviser.  It is undoubtedly an integral part of the emergency response team in a PR crisis in any company and where it sits on an organisational chart does not impact that – although can add complications if it doesn’t report to an executive with responsibility for issues management. 

But calling on Communications when a sensitive issue needs managing should not be the only measure of whether it is positioned to have the optimum level of influence.

The fact that there are still humdinger examples of major companies significantly mismanaging their communications would seem to point to it being at least undervalued if not ignored.  The media training for a recent well publicised gaffe before an interview on a merger announcement was unlikely to have specifically stated:

  1. Remember the agreed key messages
  2. Keep it simple and avoid jargon
  3. Avoid singing anything inappropriate like ‘We’re in the Money’ while you are waiting to come on air

Much of the preparatory discussions and briefings probably focused on key messages such as the deal structure and effect on competition in the market, arguably initially shaped by Finance and Legal respectively.  Understandably, it would have felt unnecessary to remind a FTSE 100 Chief Executive about how to come across responsibly but the episode demonstrates how the fundamentals of communications can be ignored or forgotten when other guidance was probably front and centre. 

Legal liability versus sympathy

Juxtapose that rather more frivolous example with a tour operator’s communications on the tragic deaths of two young children at one of its resorts.  It appeared to not express sorrow and emotion in order to avoid being seen as admitting legal liability in some way.  Could it have been that Legal was perceived as a function that carried more weight and professional gravitas than on this occasion Communications which was presumably recommending more sympathy in the messaging? 

I’m guessing on whether that was actually how it played out but the fact remains that the response was still being investigated many years after the tragic incident and continues to be used as a reference point of how not to communicate in such tragic circumstances.

Admittedly neither of these examples properly demonstrate that where Communications sits in the corporate structure affects how it operates but they do say something about its influence, or lack thereof on occasion. 

Perhaps it is a natural preference for neat structures with clearly defined areas of operation and remit that makes me hanker after a universal organisational structure nirvana.  In our brave new VUCA world that is now looking naive.  The maelstrom of integration is impacting everything from digital platforms to corporate functions.  Technology and social change has completely altered the communications landscape with for instance everybody now being classed as a broadcaster.  Everything on every level is becoming blurred – the skill is learning how to operate and influence most effectively within that. 

So does it really matter exactly where Communications sits on the organisational structure? 

Let’s return to the example of splitting Communications with internal sitting in HR and external being part of Corporate Affairs.  That cannot naturally engender collaboration on messaging or speed and consistency of communication to all stakeholders.  It feels like a dysfunctional throwback to a time when communications could afford to move much more slowly so must be a challenge to make it operate effectively in our 24/7 news world.    

A practical shift

Conversely there is a more practical shift towards an integration of internal and external communications with the newsroom model.  Multi-disciplinary communications professionals are subject matter experts on their specific beat or area of content rather than individual communications channels, tailoring messaging to the internal or external audience as appropriate.  That says cohesiveness. 

This still doesn’t address the ‘where’ of communications – or does it?  Communications has an ever widening portfolio of issues to address and works alongside many different parts of a business: there is its unique skill.  It touches so many different parts of a company that it can call almost anywhere home so will never have a designated position in the organisational structure.  It has to adapt and relocate according to the business needs and priorities of the individual company, even perhaps relocating with different stages of the company’s strategy.   

The idea of the universal organisational structure nirvana is perhaps now just that: an ideal.  Successfully operating with no fixed abode in fact demonstrates that Communications is one of the few functions that can be homeless and still continue to operate effectively from wherever it is located on an organisational structure; provided it is within hearing distance, of course. 

Now, where did I put that coupling for the caravan?

 

The author

Kristina Blissett is Head of Group Communications at Coats, the world’s leading industrial thread manufacturer and a FTSE 250 listed company.  She has over 20 years’ experience in a wide range of sectors including manufacturing, professional and financial services and has held roles in-house as well as agency.

Email

[email protected]

Website

www.coats.com


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The Author

Kristina Blissett

Kristina Blissett is Head of Group Communications at Coats, the world’s leading industrial thread manufacturer and a FTSE 250 listed company. She has over 20 years’ experience in a wide range of sectors including manufacturing, professional and financial services and has held roles in-house as well as agency

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