What are the core components of communication excellence?

Parallels between sport and organisational performance are a frequently over-played cliché. But there is a reason. Sometimes the empirical evidence just points that way – as we found with the 2018 European Communication Monitor results.  

(Image: Paul Verhoeven presenting the European Communication Monitor results at the 2018 European Communication Summit / Photo: Jana Legler)

A perennial question is: why does one sports(wo)man or team do better than another? Reading the reflections of successful coaches, we find similar and familiar themes: preparation – based on insights gained from research, competitor analysis, general fact-finding and knowledge sharing; as well as distinctive, clear leadership – that is both during competition by individuals and members of the team as well as by the support and coaching staff themselves. These are often the critical differentiators of success in or on the field, and both lead to the highest level of performance.  

And so, it appears, the same is true for communicators in public relations and strategic communication. Findings from this year’s European Communication Monitor clearly point to two factors as key influencers on high or excellent performance in communication: first, providing information insights to organisational decision makers; and second, the leadership capability of managers and leaders within the organisation.

Looking at these two areas, let us first consider what communicators across Europe are doing: their strengths and performance weaknesses and where there are opportunities for improvement.

Information provision: delivering value for decision-makers  

Adding value and standing out as a communication adviser is important and recent studies suggest this is increasingly happening in the stronger communication departments across Europe. For example, curating and disseminating information to key decision makers and managers is considered an important part of good leadership, as it is in communication. In addition, ensuring managers inside our organisations are aware of and up to date with relevant information helps to improve the position of the communication function in the organisation.

For example, a daily executive news briefing is an example of providing insight to managers about what is happening outside the organisation and especially in the media (print, television, social media). From this year’s results we find that providing information to decision-makers through, for instance, news briefings, media monitoring, survey results and other reports is a common practice for most communication units across Europe (89.1 per cent).

"A daily executive news briefing is an example of providing insight to managers about what is happening outside the organisation."

These resources offer great opportunities to gain recognition from top management and (internal) clients (agreed by 68 per cent of the respondents; figure 1) and will gain more importance in the future, as the majority states.

By far the most important and most frequently provided information by communication specialists is about news in ‘gate kept’ media (mass media with professional journalists) and social media. Only 28.4 per cent of the communication departments and agencies in Europe prepare advanced types of reporting with edited or curated content that delivers deep insights for decision-makers on a daily basis. Clearly, opportunities to deliver value by conveying strategic insights are being missed.

Leadership for communication: capability gaps at all levels

Undoubtedly, appreciation by top management is a key prerequisite when strategic communication wants to utilise its full potential. However, a CEO or top leader who understands the value of public relations and communication was found in only 76.5 per cent of the organisations (Figure 2).

"Appreciation by top management is a key prerequisite when strategic communication wants to utilise its full potential."

The proportion is even lower (57.8 per cent) when communication professionals report about leaders on other levels of their organisation, for example those heading a business unit or subsidiary.

Generally, appreciation by executives is significantly higher in non-profits compared to companies, and lowest in government-owned, public and political organisations. On the flip side, the study reveals that every fifth communication leader (19.2 per cent) also lacks leadership skills. A lack of performance at higher levels is clearly visible – especially when noting that subordinates rate the strategic involvement, ethical orientation and knowledge of the highest-ranking communicators clearly worse than the leaders themselves.

Implications for high performance in communication 

A detailed analysis of the European Communication Monitor data reveals several characteristics of high-performing communication departments. This adds to previous insights made by the research team and published by Palgrave Macmillan in the 2017 book Communication Excellence. Excellent communication departments are better prepared to deal with issues of the day (for example, fake news) and they evidence better leadership performance.

"A detailed analysis of the European Communication Monitor data reveals several characteristics of high-performing communication departments."

But more importantly, we see that they are more likely to deliver value internally by providing information to the organisation’s top management. They are also more likely to offer a broad range of management reports including media monitoring, news briefings, survey results, reputation and brand reports more frequently. Additionally, they are better at providing daily executive news briefings and social media monitoring to decision-makers inside the organisation (figure 3). On a structural and cultural level, work stress is lower or easier to manage (figure 4) and nearly all professionals working in such departments are satisfied (93.5 per cent compared to 66.8 per cent in other organisations) and loyal.

So, as we have previously debated, achieving high performance is a complex mixture. But we are also increasingly able to provide guidance on the elements that will help organisations to improve their performance. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, leadership capabilities inside the team and department, combined with information provision to key players in the organisation, are clearly two that stand out.

About the European Communication Monitor 2018

In July 2018, the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) and the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) published the results of their 12th annual  study on the state-of-the-art of communication management and trends within the profession across Europe. The European Communication Monitor 2018 is based on  responses from 3,096 communication professionals in 48 European countries. The monitor is the largest annual empirical survey in the field worldwide; it provides country-specific analyses for 22 key markets across the continent. The European Communication Monitor is supported by partners PRIME Research, a global leader in strategic communication research and member of the Cision Group, Fink und Fuchs, and Communication Director magazine. Authors of the study are five university  professors representing leading academic institutions in the field, led by Professor Ansgar Zerfass from the University of Leipzig. 

A wider board of professors and national research collaborators ensure that the survey reflects the diversity of the field across Europe.

Full results are available in a free PDF report (148 pp.) at  www.communicationmonitor.eu,  and as a booklet: Zerfass, A., Tench, R., Verhoeven, P., Verčič, D., & Moreno, A. (2018). European  Communication Monitor 2018. Strategic communication and the challenges of fake news, trust,  leadership, work stress and job  satisfaction. Results of a survey  in 48 countries. Brussels.  ISBN 978-3-942263-50-4.

Ralph Tench

Ralph Tench is professor of communication at Leeds Beckett University, UK, where is also serves as the director of research for Leeds Business School. He is also the current President of EUPRERA (European Public Relations Research and Education Association).

Ansgar Zerfass

Dr. Ansgar Zerfass is professor and chair in strategic communication at the Institute of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Leipzig, Germany. He is also professor in communication and leadership at BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, as well as editor of the International Journal of Strategic Communication, USA, and, inter alia, Plank Scholar at The Plank Center for Leadership and Communication at the University of Alabama, USA. Current projects include, amongst others, the European Communication Monitor and Asia-Pacific Communication Monitor and Value Creating Communication, the world's most extensive research program on corporate communications conducted by with several universities and global companies.