A neglected practice

A snapshot of corporate communications in small and medium-sized enterprises

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of today’s economy. Of all the firms in Europe, 99% are part of what in Germany is called “Mittelstand”. SMEs also account for the majority of workforce and employment in the United States. However, little is known about strategic communication in this field. Knowledge about corporate communications in large enterprises is often not transferable to the heterogenic mass of SMEs ranging from start-ups and entrepreneurs to hidden champions acting on a global scale. Key features like the close link between owners and employees may effecting leadership approaches, organizational culture and the readiness to assume risks and take responsibility. Consequently, the understanding of how corporate communications is practised in SMEs is an ongoing challenge.

Understanding corporate communications of SMEs

An online survey conducted in Germany at the end of 2014 revealed that SMEs have mainly a dialogue-oriented understanding of communication, which is not limited to one-way transmission. Furthermore, they understand communication as a dialogue with others to experience something and to exchange information.

Understanding of communication in SMEs.

This might be due to the fact that SMEs are strongly aligned to individual requirements of costumers and have a strong relationship with other business partners as well (Bruhn, 2009; Freeman et al., 2013). The relevance of communication is also shown by the fact that 77% of respondents agreed that “communication and public opinion are vital for our daily business”. However, only 64% said that active communications work is really relevant for their company.

Missing resources and blurred responsibilities

Another reason for a lack of strategic communication in SMEs is the severe lack of resources. 59% of the companies interviewed lack a team solely responsible for communication, and one third is missing a full-time communicator. Furthermore, 40% stated that they have no fixed budget for communication. It is not surprising that the responsibility of the top management for communication correlates negatively with the number of employees. While the owner is fully or partly responsible for communication in 44% of SMEs with between 250 and 499 employees, this is his responsibility in two out of three companies with less than 50 employees. This supports earlier findings that established that communication in SMEs is mainly a matter for the boss.

Scarce resources carry other consequences for communicators: a majority stated that the person who is responsible for communication has not enough time for communication activities. Other important barriers are that the contribution of communications work for the company success is rarely measureable (47%); that an overall formal communication strategy is missing (47%) and that resources for communication (41%) are restricted. The study revealed that SMEs are aware of the importance of corporate communication, but financial and personal resources restrict them from employing it appropriately.

Market-driven and stakeholder-oriented communication

Dialogues with stakeholders seem to be important for SMEs: “Customers and retailers”, “journalists”, “personnel”, and “suppliers and business partners” were reported as their most important stakeholders. Furthermore, “personal communication with customers and business partners” is strongly interwoven with the stakeholder group “customers and retailers”. Thus, a high rating of that stakeholder group goes hand in hand with a high rating of personal communication.

Only slight differences were found between communication tools used by SMEs and by large enterprises. While more traditional measures like “websites”, “media relations”, and “personal communication” scarcely differ, there are some deviations regarding “marketing and advertising”, “customer magazine”, “intranet, internal wikis, blogs”, and “staff magazine”, which are more often used by large enterprises. The insight that only one third of SMEs use a “staff magazine” coincides with the preference for personal, direct relationships in internal communication, as well as with the focus on time- and cost-saving measures.

This overall trend in SMEs is supported by the channels which typically shape the internal flow of information. SMEs mostly use direct and personal communication for internal purposes, with 80% of respondents using spontaneous conversations with organisational members to circulate new information within the company. Formal meetings and informal conversations with leaders are used nearly as often. On the other hand, internal media and internal company events are more established in large enterprises. Once again, this shows that a lack of resources may be one reason for a weaker institutionalisation of corporate communications in SMEs.

Between planning and intuition

Given the fact that corporate communications is mostly seen as an incidental activity in SMEs, the survey asked about the planning process of communication in these organisations. The data revealed that daily communication activities are mainly influenced by the situation or occasion.

Lack of strategic planning in SMEs.

Along this line, two third of the companies interviewed proactively plan media-related activities. Nevertheless, an overall communication strategy is mostly missing. Whereas a corporate communication strategy was considered necessary by nearly 70% of the respondents, only one third has already implemented such a strategy. The use of different rationales for communication during campaigns and crises dominates overall strategies and long-term planning processes. That is no surprise, especially because it was considered that the person who is responsible for communication is either the owner itself or located in different departments at the same time. While the former is entrusted with operational business activities, the latter has also different tasks and responsibilities. Thus, the lack of time for corporate communication keeps to be a challenge for SMEs.

In general, the corporate communication of SMEs can be described through five different elements:

  1. Heterogeneity: SMEs use diverging concepts for various communication activities.
  2. Spontaneity: Corporate communication of SMEs is characterised by situational decision-making.
  3. Lack of goals: Overall communication strategies are often missing in SMEs.
  4. Lack of budgets: Most SMEs do not have a dedicated budget for communication.
  5. Measurement gap: Even if communication and the public opinion were rated as important for the daily business, only a minority measures the contribution of communication for overall company success.

Generally, corporate and strategic communication of SMEs seem to be inappropriate according to traditional management standards. However, some authors like Henry Mintzberg questioned the basic idea behind these standards which claim that “to be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer”. Along these lines, the intuitive use of strategic communication might be an important advantage in the turbulent times that characterise today’s world. Further research has to rethink the often-heard criticism of a weak institutionalisation of communication in SMEs and focus on the specific stakeholder sets and values in this field instead. This in turn requires a thorough understanding of the genesis and development of corporate communication in SMEs. More research as well as case studies and best practises are needed and deserve closer attention.

To discuss these findings in depth, contact Luisa at the University of Leipzig here and follow Ansgar on Twitter at @zerfass

Image: Thinkstock

Luisa Winkler

Luisa Winkler researches at the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Leipzig as a doctoral fellow of Fink & Fuchs Public Relations AG. She works in the area of SME communications and her research interestss include organizational culture, leadership and strategic communication.

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.