As a senior internal communications specialist with more years experience under my belt than I care to think about, I have regularly encountered a disconnect between the perceptions and communication drivers at Board level and the communication needs of those “at the coalface”.
For example, I was recently working on a global restructuring programme that had been ‘work in progress’ for the best part of two years, with a completion deadline of year end. In early Summer, the Board decided to pull forward the end date by five months. In their view this would bring an end to the feelings of transition and uncertainty and enable messaging for the second half of the year to focus on life after the restructure. In reality, while senior management had been involved in the restructuring debate for many, many months, a large number of staff had only recently found out how the programme impacted their roles and there was a real danger that they might feel railroaded by the sudden escalation of the programme.
When reading VMA’s BLCS 2012 report, I had a similar feeling of disconnect.
Being charitable, it’s possible that, from my perspective further down the communication functional hierarchy, the degree of influence of those at the top of the functional tree is not apparent to me.
Alternatively, I wonder how much wishful thinking has influenced these findings?
My scepticism was first aroused by the response to the question: “The communications function has a major influence on Board decision-making on strategic business issues”. Nearly half (49%) of the respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement.
We might like to think that the most senior representative of our function is suitably well regarded, and wields sufficient influence, to be part of the business strategy decision-making process. However, views from CEOs expressed in a research report produced by headhunters Ellwood and Atfield – “Communications: A View From the Board” articulated a much more realistic, in my opinion, view of the Communication Director’s role:
“The Communications Director takes delivery of the strategy and messages it. They are not involved in shaping the strategy.”
“I want [him] to act as a sanity check. If he was involved in formulating strategy he would become an insider and less objective.”
The Ellwood and Atfield report goes on to say that “for most, the answer lies somewhere in between with the Communications Director having (some) input to strategy discussions but with less influence than those running the day to day business”. The BLCS report suggests that future surveys might try to understand the gap between the 83% who agreed that they “frequently had an opportunity to influence the thinking of the CEO and the Board” and the drop to 49% who felt that they “had a major influence on strategic business issues “.
I think the Ellwood and Atfield findings go a long way to explain this apparent contradiction.
To buy a copy of VMA’s Business Leaders in Communications Study 2012 go to the VMA shop