Organisations should be concerned with organising their communications for several reasons.
The legal and regulatory environments call for more responsiveness in how organisations address their internal and external constituencies. These are not always neatly distinct; they may overlap as boundaries between what is considered internal and what is considered external communication change, or may not be as clear as they used to be. Finally, as organisations age they grow, becoming increasingly more complex and embedded in webs of relationships at multiple levels, and often with greater geographical reach.
Growth through mergers and acquisitions only complicates communications further. As an organisation becomes increasingly complex, so must its communications in order to help the organisation to achieve greater clarity, coherence, and coordination. Creating a communication department is one way to help an organisation make sense of the clutter of communications competing for attention within and between organisations for dissemination upward, downward, inward, and outward.
There are a variety of approaches to organising and structuring a communication department. The primary ways are through centralisation, matrix, and decentralisation. In a centralised structure, all communication functions report to a senior level officer at the company headquarters. In a matrix approach, communication heads in various subsidiaries may report to the company’s management but also to the corporate communication team. In this approach, any press release sent out must be approved by the overall corporate communication team, which will review it with an eye to detecting possible conflicts with any of its subsidiaries. In a decentralised structure, communication professionals are nested within individual business units.
Regardless of the structure chosen, uniting all communication sub-functions under one umbrella enables the communication department to ensure coordination and consistency in key messages. But the success of any communication department hinges on how well aligned the integration model is with how a given organisation works. For this reason, the best way to begin setting up a communication department is by conducting a comprehensive communication audit.
According to organisational communication consultants Cal Downs and Allyson Adrian, a communication audit needs to be independent, professional, diagnostically skilled, tailored, and involve a current time frame. The audit needs to be conducted by someone who has the training that qualifies them to make the investigation. The first time a communication audit is done, it is best to hire an outside research agency, but later audits – which should be performed regularly – can be done in-house.
The auditor needs to be professional enough to understand the intricacies of organisational politics but also have the expertise to analyse communication. Skills in diagnosis are necessary to obtain a realistic view of the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses. The diagnosis needs to be comprehensive, not just related to the areas of change that the programme evaluator would like to implement. A communication audit may be based on criteria set by professional associations, pet theories of the auditor, purposes dictated by management, benchmark comparisons with peer organisations, internal comparisons over time, current management fashions or notions of leadership and effectiveness, or objectives against which the organisation should be judged.
Audits are most effective if linked to organisational outcomes, such as employee satisfaction, profitability, and costs of communication, productivity, and organisational commitment and loyalty to name a few. Moreover, they should be linked to organisational strategies. Auditors do not always need to start from ground zero; they can begin by tailoring questions derived from previous surveys or resources.
Sign of commitment
Comprehensive audits can assist the development of communication departments in several ways. They can provide a picture of how employees view the organisation, but also a picture of how well management relates its goals and strategic visions to employees. Audits enable perceptions to be verified, replacing guesswork with valid information about the organisation. Often, the information generated cannot be gathered any other way.
Audits also provide feedback that can help a new department develop communication training programmes, assess changes created by the use of new technologies, test employee performance review standards, and assess the effectiveness of printed communications so they can be improved. Audits can also detect employees’ support for strategic initiatives by management. The mere fact that a communication assessment has taken place signals to the workforce that the organisation has a strong commitment to organisational effectiveness, and emphasises the role that communication plays in organisational performance. Moreover, audits provide the communication department with a benchmark for progress in the future.
Components of an audit
A communication audit consists of several components, including in-depth interviews with senior level managers, front-line managers, managers of strategic business units, and the top managers and lower level employees at geographically dispersed locations. An audit should include an understanding of the history, culture, and formal structure of the organisation through interviews, personal observation, and interviews with external experts and opinion leaders, followed by surveys with representative publics both inside and outside the organisation. Interviews with managers and employees should gather background on key issues and their consequences for the organisation’s mission and bottom line. An audit should determine what priority these issues hold for these interviewees, as well as to what degree they think communication can or should help. It should find out about reporting relationships, internal clients and who they work for and why, what type of work is being done, and where communication fits into the picture, and how.
The audit should also investigate the organisation’s current and past performance. Has it improved, deteriorated, or remained the same over the last three years? How well known is the organisation, what is its reputation, and how does the organisation want to influence this reputation? How satisfied is the organisational leadership with this reputation? Furthermore, an auditor must determine how supportive the internal environment is for communication activities. Are there impediments or obstacles to success that come from within the organisation? Are there impediments from top management (or other internal clients or publics) and are they caused by policies or procedures, and are the impediments deliberate?
Other areas of focus
The audit should also investigate what communication resources are (or could be) available for the departmental activities. Among other things, investments could include personnel, equipment, time and money. The question is, does the organisation have resources for the communication department to achieve these organisational goals? If not, can they be obtained? Often, they can be obtained through partnerships and alliances with key advocates and clients within the organisation that do have budgets, even if the communication department does not. At the same time, the audit is an opportunity for identifying communication talent – those employees working in other divisions of the organisation who may work well in a communication department.
There are several other areas specifically related to communication that the audit should focus on. Downs and Adrian recommend examining how task processes impact communication, the adequacy of information exchange, the directionality of communication flow, how well employees use communication media technologies, the different functions communication plays, the quality of relationships between superiors, subordinates, and peers, and the rules governing communication. The point is to learn as much as possible about the organisation, including how work really gets done in the organisation, how people and departments relate to each other, and how communication can make the biggest impact.
The results of the communication audit should reveal where a communication department can add its greatest value in support of company goals. Dewey’s legendary reflecting thinking pattern provides a useful framework to interpret the results of a communication audit: 1) define the problem; 2) analyse the problem; 3) set up criteria for a solution; 4) list alternative solutions; and 5) choose a solution.
When analysing the results, it is important to use data from all the instruments that were used and to reconcile contradictions that emerge. It is also important to welcome different points of view and to keep negative information in perspective. The sheer volume of information generated from a communication audit can be overwhelming, but out of the data collection should come a sense of priority about what the most important communication issues are. It must be remembered that not all problems that are identified will be communication problems, and not all issues identified will, on closer examination, prove to be problems at all. It is also useful to test different ways of characterising the problems and to probe the nature of a given problem more fully.
In analysing the results, it is often useful to make comparisons to other organisations, between subunits in a particular organisation, against stated goals, past performance, specific organisational outcomes, or desirable characteristics that the organisation wishes to embrace. It is also important to keep in mind what stage the organisation is within its lifecycle and the influence of national culture, particularly if an organisation expands its reach beyond one country.
Then, finally, it is important to make client-centered recommendations for the creation of the communication department. Are recommendations practical? Are they workable? Are they desirable? Cost-efficient? Such recommendations should be thorough, and the recommendation report should be arranged systematically so that the physical arrangement adds to the audience’s receptivity. An audit should limit the number of conclusions you make, keeping areas needing improvement and areas of strength in perspective, as well as maintaining the anonymity of respondents and pointing out the limitations of the study.
An auditor’s recommendations should be consultative and tentative, noting cost implications and seeking to apply the 20/80 rule, where 20 per cent of the changes made will account for 80 per cent of the improvement in performance. Limited resources from which to begin the communication department may make some solutions unlikely, in which case, it is important to build allies during the communication audit phase so that resources can be compiled and assembled from across departments who may be willing to share parts of their budgets for the purpose of developing the communication department.
Based on the findings of the audit, an organisation can determine the best competitive advantage, strategy, and positioning that can be offered for the creation of the communication department. When it comes time to execute an organisation’s plan of integrating communication, Argenti recommends that it should include the following:
- An overarching objective or set of objectives for integration
- A clear link to the organisation’s overall strategic plan and business objectives
- Clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all members of the organisation’s communication sub-functions
- An approach to measure the effectiveness of the plan
- A definition of what constitutes success
Even if a plan for communication integration is not immediately implemented completely, the communication department will benefit from its creation by moving the integration concept from simply being desirable to being realistic through carefully crafted tactics; generating buy-in and support from the organisation’s senior level officers (by presenting a plan that ties into the organisation’s strategic objectives and is focused on business outcomes), and providing a reference that ensures that everyone is on the same page with regard to roles and responsibilities.
Finally, regular audits ensure that communication activities are thought of in terms of business outcomes. Successful audits will change the way that communication activities are managed and integrated in the future.