The boundary spanner

Which tasks are performed by communication executives? A new management tool reflects the many facets of the role.

Communication leaders have manifold responsibilities, ranging from reputation management, to steering communication teams and counselling top managers in decision-making processes. This can be observed in the changing success profiles of chief communication officers (CCOs) and closer links to the C-suite.

Yet, research into the many new roles of CCOs has been lagging behind. In order to bridge this gap, we analysed existing role conceptions in public relations and communication literature and have also spoken with global heads of communication about their multi-faceted responsibilities in daily practice.

The newly developed Communication Manager Roles Grid depicts the role diversity of today’s communication executives in eight dimensions. It can be used for assessing individual competencies or setting personal targets. 

Executive summary

  • The Communication Manager Roles Grid (CRG) systematises the multi-faceted tasks of today’s communication executives in eight dimensions and helps to better understand the different strategic and operational roles performed. The tool can be used to reflect on individual performance. It supports leadership when used to define success profiles or set personal targets.
  • A wide range of managerial competencies are needed to fulfil the many responsibilities of communication leaders. A solid comprehension of popular management concepts and tools is important. Moreover, a good understanding of the organisation is relevant to be able to provide consultation to top managers.
  • Communication executives can benefit from better demonstrating their personal contributions to corporate success. In particular, they can emphasise their strategic roles as ambassadors of corporate strategy and advisors of top management.

Research into professional roles has been a popular topic in communication and management sciences for decades. The origins of roles research in the field of communication in the late 1970s were marked by a strong focus on diverging gender roles and related salary gaps. Today, research investigates diverse aspects such as leadership or competency development.

Over the years, many different role concepts have been suggested. Some are based on theoretical conceptualisations, some on normative ideas, others on surveys among professionals in different countries. Most studies have indicated that practitioners perform between two up to six different roles during their daily work.

PR managers and PR technicians

In 1979, the US-based pioneers of PR roles research, G.M. Broom and G.D. Smith, proposed a four-role typology:

  1. The communication facilitator acts as an information broker, liaison, and mediator between the organisation and its publics.
  2. The expert prescriber works on public relations problems and offers solutions.
  3. The problem-solving process facilitator collaborates with line management and helps to apply a rational problem-solving process.
  4. The communication technician is responsible for producing communication materials for the public relations effort.

Over time, the four-role concept was simplified and reduced to only two role dimensions: the PR technician and the PR manager. In this widely known typology, technicians produce and disseminate materials, whereas managers develop communication strategies based on research and analysis and play an important role in decision-making processes.

Despite further developments, the two-role typology still remains popular especially in North American research. Studies from South Africa have built upon this and added a third role to the manager-technician dichotomy – the PR strategist – arguing that a more concise separation between strategic and operational roles is necessary.

Reflective and educational roles

In addition to the widely used two-role concept from North America, European researchers have suggested that communication practitioners have two additional roles: a reflective and an educational role. According to large-scale surveys of European practitioners, the reflective communication professional analyses changing standards, values and standpoints in society, and discusses these with the members of the organisation.

The educational communication professional helps the members of the organisation to communicate professionally. Empirical studies of chief communication officers and their work routines support these concepts and configure them in various ways.

Management and leadership roles

Because the management discipline has a long tradition in researching role concepts, a look at the management literature can provide some interesting insights. According to these findings, managers typically perform a large number of different roles.

Still popular today are, for example, the 10 managerial roles outlined by the Canadian management scholar Henry Mintzberg in 1973. He differentiated between Figurehead, Leader, Liaison, Monitor, Disseminator, Spokesperson, Entrepreneur, Disturbance Handler, Resource Allocator, and Negotiator.

Another well-known concept focuses on the role of leaders in the organisation and the question of how to steer teams efficiently and effectively. In 1958, R. Tannenbaum and W.H. Schmidt proposed a leadership continuum that shows the relationship between the different levels of freedom that a manager chooses to give a team.

The model suggests seven different leadership styles on a continuum, ranging from highly manager-oriented to highly team-oriented.

Choosing the best fitting leadership style for each situation and team characteristics is critical for organisational performance. Developing leadership competencies is also highly relevant for today’s communication managers who increasingly steer global communication teams with employees from different cultures, ethnicities, generations and with different norms and expectations. Communication leaders therefore need to acquire skills in team and conflict management and cross-cultural communication, and need to adjust their leadership behaviour to the varying demands of different employees.

Changing job profiles: from PR manager to CCO

The rapidly changing job profile of today’s communication executives can be observed in the ongoing development of job titles over the years: from PR manager to head of communications to chief communication officer.

Today’s CCOs are more than a press officer or an event manager. They provide information for corporate management decisions by observing public opinion trends in traditional and social media and anticipating societal needs. In many companies, they act as a personal and trusted advisor of top management and co-design corporate strategy.

In their role as department head, CCOs have managerial responsibility for the performance and set-up of the communication department. They head teams of up to several hundred specialists, steer agencies and service providers around the world, and handle budgets of up to several million Euros.

The transition from being an executor to a consultant, and from a producer of communication materials to a business supporter, is manifested in the personal objectives for communication leaders. Today’s success profiles are increasingly built upon clear, figure-based and measurable annual targets, often linked to corporate targets.

The different roles of communicators in the value creation process

Although a variety of role concepts exist, our literature review revealed that they are not universally applicable and that the distinctions remain fuzzy. That is whywe developed a new concept based on our interviews with corporate communication officers, a concept that aims to build upon the existing role concepts outlined above.

The Communication Manager Roles Grid depicts the role diversity of communication leaders in eight dimensions. It also introduces a clear distinction between strategic and operational roles. These roles should not be seen as mutually exclusive as they will overlap to a certain extent.

The distinction between strategic and operational roles in the real world is also blurred due to the fact that strategic tasks and operational activities often go hand in hand. Some CCOs will predominantly perform strategic roles. Others might spend more time in operational roles, just like their team members do. Balancing roles and their requirements is an ongoing challenge.

How to use the Communication Manager Roles Grid

  • The Roles Grid helps to reflect on one’s personal role fulfilment and take a critical look at competencies for each of the eight roles. Communicators can identify their roles in the organisation by asking: How much time do I spend in each role? Do I perform well in those roles? How do others perceive me? Do they value my roles as much as I expect?
  • The grid can be used to identify individual needs in order to advance competencies. However, nobody has to have excellent skills for performing every role. Leaders can use the grid to match competencies of team members to build up teams with a diversity of skills, create job profiles and ensure that the right staff are in the right positions.
  • Finally, the Communication Manager Roles Grid can be used to set personal targets and report individual performance in all eight role dimensions.

Further reading: Communication Insights (2017, Issue 3): How to play the game. Free download at:

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.

Sophia Charlotte Volk

Sophia Charlotte Volk is research associate at the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Leipzig and has been involved in the research project Value Creating Communication. During her studies, she worked as a research assistant in a range of research projects, for instance the European Communication Monitor. She studied communication science and communication management at the Universities of Münster, Zürich, Leipzig and Ohio. In her dissertation project she is currently researching the role of strategic communication in international organizations. Her research interests include cross-cultural and international communication, strategy alignment and evaluation/measurement.