The rise of the agile comms function

During times of budget cuts and efficiency measures, communications professionals are forced to think differently. Faced with a situation of reduced workforce, minimal budget and high expectations, one communications team looked to the power of insourcing to find a new, proactive normal.

Some might say that the greatest enemy to proactivity is the almighty organisational chart. Those lines and boxes may keep people organised but they also keep us confined, especially in a function like communications where lines and boxes typically separate things like internal versus external or social media versus traditional media.

The organisational chart may give you a sense of ownership and responsibility, but it lacks something significant: where is the incentive to step out of that box and do something else? You’re not measured on that, after all. So you keep yourself busy doing your job and staying in your box.

(Main image: Telenor’s “strategy squad” take agility to another level with the Group communications team/Photo: Martin Philip Fjellanger)

However, organisations today, especially those in transformation, can no longer afford the luxury of a single person doing a single job as outlined in the organisational chart. That’s why we talk so much about agile work. 

"Organisations today, especially those in transformation, can no longer afford the luxury of a single person doing a single job as outlined in the organisational chart."

When it comes to ‘agile ways of work’, communications teams aren’t the usual suspects. We’re a support function, after all, not a project-based team. Try telling a seasoned spokesperson or savvy social media specialists that “You need to do things that aren’t in your official job description”: who wants to hear that message? The response you are typically met with is “I’m too busy; I’ve no time to do other stuff. My work is too important.” And that’s typically the end of the agile story in communications.

But it’s in the midst of a big budget crunch, personnel losses and other random crises, that innovation strikes. Maybe it’s the shake-up of all things ‘normal’ that gives you the freedom to think differently? Or maybe it’s simply necessity? Whatever it is, it’s about time.

Finding a new  (and more efficient) normal

In our company, a small group of us were tasked to plan for 2019. We were told to create the communications strategy and activities for the upcoming year. We were told there’d be even less money, fewer resources and that we should expect more changes. We were also told to “be more proactive.” Easy peasy, right?

We started with the company strategy. If we were to get endorsement for our own plan, it had to clearly connect to and support the overall corporate ambitions. We also researched across the organisation for key challenges faced. We spoke to different units, different markets and looked at the global surveys that had been conducted. We listed the commonalities and chose to focus our attention on those where communications could make a meaningful impact. One commonality we uncovered was the need to create as sense of urgency among employees to stimulate our transformation journey, as well as to continue to build on the understanding and acceptance of the company’s strategy. By targeting these challenges, we could determine our success (or failure) based on improvement in our employee effectiveness survey, regularly conducted across the organisation.

With the strategy in our pocket and the challenges top of mind, we looked at some of the key priorities across the business. The idea was that these would address a must-win in 2019 for the company, wins that would be crucial to the fulfilment of the strategy. If communications chose to ignore these priorities, we could simply pack up and close shop. To gain credibility with our executives, we need to make a very clear link between our proactive work and the company’s strategic focus for the year.

Look to the organisation for answers

I believe that one of the mistakes we have made in the past is that we have either outsourced this work or we haven’t done our homework. As the communications function, we assume that, because we’re always at the centre of everything, that we know everything, and thus, we can simply create our plan in our communications vacuum. This approach will inevitably lead to a mismatch between what we say and what the organisation does, or that great proactive opportunities are missed or overlooked.

Once you do your research and seek input across the organisation, it becomes clearer which communication initiatives have strategic and business value. For us, we saw a need to provide a greater context for the changes our company was facing, and to build stories around the company’s initiatives to upskill/re-skill employees, to offer free online learning and explain why specific critical competencies are key to our future. We also defined a need to talk about the future of our business, how technology is changing and how IoT, 5G and personalisation of services will play a critical role in meeting the needs of our B2B and B2C customers.

"Once you seek input across the organisation, it becomes clearer which communication initiatives have strategic and business value."

All of this resulted in the formation of four strategic communications campaigns for 2019. They would be yearlong initiatives, filled with both internal and external communications activities, run primarily by communications team members, with support from across the organisation. The catch with this approach is that you are placed in a team that does not reflect the organisational chart and you will be given a role that is not in your job description. It may not be an agile way of work in the strictest sense, but it’s certainly changing our way of work. Comfort zone be damned.

Birds-eye view

When planning the campaigns we knew we ran the risk of creating more boxes and lines. We also had key demands to create reputation boosting initiatives. We need someone to have a birds-eye, outside view on our work and to support in the creative deliverables. We needed an agency or consultant. With no budget to be found, we decided to insource.

We gathered four internal employees who have a diverse mix of experience and nationalities, several with agency background, who had all worked on creative, reputation-building campaigns in the past. In addition, they were employees who had a birds-eye view on many of the activities already ongoing across the company, which proved to be helpful in ensuring consistency and exploring synergies with the campaigns and other activities. Together, this group of four formed an in-house agency that services the reputation projects as well as maintains a holistic view of all the proactive work in the department. Their remit is simple: service the company in the professional manner of an external communications agency, including pitching, concept development all the way to content development and execution. And they do all of this in addition to their day jobs.

The power of insourcing

Our aspiring agile organisation said ‘yes’ to this experiment and we are now in its infancy. But one thing is already clear, and that’s the power of motivation. This shake-up of all things normal has resulted in a boost in enthusiasm and spiritedness among the team. People are excited again. They see the opportunities and they are looking forward to deploying their creative skills towards new tasks and challenges.

"This shake-up of all things normal has resulted in a boost in enthusiasm and spiritedness among the team."

The organisational charts and job descriptions are still there if you search for them… but they are less important now. What’s important is the goal, and now we’re all working proactively towards it, “agile-ish”, together.

Berit Framnes

Berit Framnes has spent her career doing communications for tech companies. She has been at Telenor since 2010, and currently works as vice president, head of engagement.

Meera Bhatia

Meera Bhatia is a former Bloomberg journalist that entered the world of corporate communications in 2012, when she joined Telenor. She currently works as vice president and head of financial communications and acting head of media relations at Telenor Group.

Jo Roald

Jo Roald’s career in communications began on the agency side where he first met the client Telenor Group. He officially joined the company in 2010 working for Telenor’s former operation in India. He moved back to Norway and now works as Telenor’s vice president and head of CEO agenda.