ITL #373 Topic-based strategic communication and corporate newsrooms: greater agility in corporate communication

1 month ago


Some companies have established corporate newsrooms that mimic how editorial offices work to deliver communication faster and more effectively. By Sabine Einwiller.

Digital transformation has brought about challenges and opportunities for communications. A constant and rapid flow of information, limited stakeholder attention and high stakeholder demands require quick, well-coordinated and engaging communication efforts, while simultaneously meeting the requirements for resource efficiency. Opportunities result from new ways of directly communicating with audiences via owned media, which requires organizations to think and work like media producers.

To meet the challenges and realize the opportunities, traditional structures and processes of doing communications need to be changed. Old ways of organizing the communications function along stakeholder groups and specific media create silos and hamper velocity, coordination, flexibility and efficiency, i.e. they obstruct agility.

Thus, several companies have changed or are changing their structures and processes. They put topics and content at the center of every communication effort, following the rule “content first, channel second”. And they establish corporate newsrooms that mimic the way of working in editorial offices.

Analysis of change

With my team at the University of Vienna, we analyzed this change process towards topic-based strategic communication and corporate newsroom structures by visiting and conducting interviews in fourteen organizations. Some of these are pioneers with well-functioning corporate newsrooms. Others were still experimenting with this new way of organizing and communicating.

The motivation for the changing communication structures and processes is clear: By implementing a newsroom and focusing on topics and content companies expect to become faster and more consistent in communicating relevant content, attracting attention and creating engagement in their audiences. Some were also driven by a need for more efficiency because of budget cuts.

In the most advanced forms of corporate newsrooms, old structures have been completely abandoned. Hierarchies, silos and rigid job descriptions were replaced with a decentralized network structure and flexible teams.

To organize the communication process, companies have, for example, established a planning team responsible for short- and long-term planning along the company’s strategic topics, a production team that develops the content, and a distribution team supporting the communication of the content adapted to the different channels. Alongside these organizational structures, teams form and dissolve flexibly with the emergence and completion of projects and tasks.

Not so radical

Yet, not all companies have changed this radically. They have rather established what we call a “newsroom light”, where an additional structure is added to the existing, traditional communications department. In this additional structure, representatives of the different communication units assume topic- or channel-centered duties on top of their primary responsibilities.

Or, alternatively, a discrete unit assumes the role of a steering committee, which is largely occupied with coordinating and integrating communication efforts across the organization. Even though in the “newsroom light” model the traditional structures are not abandoned, the boundaries between the silos are softened, and a great deal of importance is placed on information exchange and cross-functional collaboration.

Regarding the physical working environment, open workspaces are better suited to facilitate the flow of information and communication among employees than individual offices. Some of the pioneer companies have broken down walls, or even built completely new facilities to host the corporate newsroom. While in some organizations, the management level kept their individual offices, in others, even the head of communications has given up his or her office and works in an open plan office alongside the team.

Apart from implementing new organizational structures, adapting agile processes is key when setting up a corporate newsroom or a “newsroom light”. Meetings are the focal point of all coordination efforts. In newsrooms, there are many different meeting formats, ranging from long-term strategy meetings to daily stand-up meetings. Often, agile formats or tools are adopted. Digital tools support team communication, collaboration and information exchange.

In the meetings, employees with different expertise and independent of their hierarchical status come together to jointly develop topics and stories, and to coordinate communication efforts. Decisions are frequently made by the responsible project team, and not by a senior manager.

It shows that newsroom concepts go hand in hand with agile work models: Flat hierarchies, flexible processes, independent project teams, and a new corporate culture. When decision making and responsibility are delegated to project teams, traditional control mechanisms recede, giving way to a new mechanism that is based on trust and responsibility.

Trust decreases costs, and it assumes that employees act responsibly based on their expertise and competencies. In fully developed corporate newsrooms, employees work largely self-organized, and top managers concentrate on developing the communication strategy and enabling their staff.

Risk of failure

However, without proper knowledge of management systems and permanent employee training, this participatory process is at risk of failing. The organization can only sustain flat hierarchies and agility if all employees possess comparable amounts of expertise and roughly the same basic set of competencies.

Aside from external or in-house trainings, peer-to-peer learning schemes and mutual support are essential. We learned that, aside from hard skills, soft skills are particularly important, above all open-mindedness, self-responsibility, flexibility, team spirit and the desire for new knowledge and further development.

To sum up, traditional structures of corporate communications are no longer suitable for 21st-century communications. No company can withstand the tides of digitalization, real-time communication on a global scale, or the empowerment of stakeholder groups. With growing public relevance, the need for newsroom structures increases.

While smaller companies do not necessarily need a fully-fledged newsroom, no global player can afford to be caught off-guard when new topics arise in the public sphere. Even more importantly, companies must not only react quickly, they must be part of the conversations and share their views by means of corporate agenda setting.

All communication experts we talked to in our study welcomed the developments towards more agile structures. While not all of them embrace a fully-agile corporate newsroom, all realize that the communication challenge of tomorrow cannot be met with yesterday’s tools. More transparency, increased efficiency, strengthened collaboration, elevated stakeholder engagement, and more effective communications are the most visible benefits of this change process.

The study on strategic topic management and corporate newsrooms was initiated by the Academic Society for Management & Communication, a joint initiative of leading companies and universities with the aim of actively shaping the future of corporate communications through joint research and knowledge sharing. The results of the study are summarized in Issue 6 of Communication Insights, which can be accessed here


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The Author

Dr. Sabine Einwiller

Dr. Sabine Einwiller is professor of public relations research at the University of Vienna, Austria, where she also heads the Corporate Communication Research Group. In her research she focuses on strategic communication of companies, employee communication, and communication in critical situations.

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