Is communications too important for the communications department?

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Now there’s a fundamental and thought-provoking question I’ve never heard before.

It came up at the mind-expanding European Association of Communications Directors (EACD) Summit I had the great pleasure of participating in this week. The Summit was the best communications conference I’ve ever attended. It was a shot in the arm of fresh perspective, diversity of thought, inspiration and professional solidarity.

In case you’re wondering – yes, it’s slightly weird for a Canadian to have been there, but I was welcomed with open arms, and had a delightful time facilitating the Communications Director’s Lab on Reimagining the Function.

What’s remarkable is that this sensational event was organized by volunteers – communications leaders from across Europe, all of whom have huge jobs and crazy schedules. Somehow, this incredible crew made the time to roll-up their sleeves and produce such a large-scale, professional event. That spirit of commitment, support and generosity infused every aspect of the conference.

I wish I could bottle the insight, energy and positivity of the conference – the next best thing is this brief overview of four main themes that struck me from the program:

Hope

If there was a golden thread running through the presentations, it was hope. There was a palpable positive energy throughout the event. It was clear this was a tonic for the hearts, minds and souls of weary communications leaders, depleted from the unrelenting pace of chaos, crisis and complexity.

  • In the Communications Director’s Lab session I facilitated, participants engaged in bold exercises and thought experiments to draw a bigger box for the function. We played with the idea of moving from disorder to coherence through community, rather than by using control. This included finding new ways to achieve more signal and less noise, supports for staying grounded when the ground keeps shifting and exploring what we would do if we weren’t afraid. Here’s a video clip as well as the session resources and summary.
  • Lewis Iwu offered a refreshing take on diversity and inclusion in his superb keynote address. He issued a rallying cry for communications leaders to focus on creating a compelling vision of what a future organization might look like, rather than resorting to tired tropes of “shoulds” or negative approaches that have turned people off. Lewis as well as several other presenters urged communicators to strengthen our imagination muscles – painting a picture of what better looks like and building communities to join in that vision.
  • Tamara Carleton presented a terrific address on Moonshot thinking, that is zooming in on a bold vision of the future and of what’s possible and then working backwards to achieve it. Tamara reminded us that “what you foresee is what you get” and urged us to shift away from the traditionally short-term focus of communications to think and play big.

Community

I was struck by the deep sense of allyship and community among this group of communications leaders. Rather than the standard veneer or façade that often dominates such gatherings, what I noticed was a sense of radical candour and vulnerability among speakers and participants.

For example, one speaker navigating organizational communication through the complex Israel-Gaza conflict shared that this has been the most emotionally charged period in their lifetime. Another was open in saying that had they known what 2020-2024 would bring as acute challenges, they would not have been brave enough to have taken the job.

  • Lynette Jackson of Siemens AG provided a rare glimpse of the challenges of leading communications for a multinational behemoth. In her fascinating talk, she spoke of the rise in “glocalization” and stressed the importance of listening to multiple communities and building coalitions of support including task forces.
  • In a fascinating panel on communications and transformation, Jaap Van den Hoek of the Change Collective emphasized the importance of community and support as employees are universally undergoing change fatigue. He counselled that leaders have to start by accepting the reality of change fatigue and focus on providing space for checking in on how people are feeling. Jeppe and his panelists highlighted that many leaders are currently feeling that they are “pulling dead horses” leading to exhaustion, disillusionment and disempowerment.
  • Thomas Philipon of TotalEnergies Corbion offered fascinating insights on leading a biotechnology company through the current context of geopolitical complexity and challenges, from regulations to building buy-in and working across several cultures. He emphasized the importance of building allies and relationships across stakeholders.

Value

The Summit provided an ideal platform to dive into the question of understanding and conveying the unique value creation of communications. This is clearly urgently needed given the dual pressures of rising demands on the function and worrying research pointing to the “juniorization” of the Chief Communications Officer role.

  • Professor Ansgar Zerfass of Leipzig University presented his terrific Communications Value Model and invited leaders to take the time to frame the value of the function. The case for cracking the age-old nut of the value and impact of communications was made plain through research that he shared. This included a finding that while the C-suite tends to value communications, only 50% report that the financial cost of the function is justified. As Ansgar explains, a managerial perspective is required to understand the chain of evidence since “the value of communications is captured somewhere else, such as sales or HR”.
  • Several speakers pointed to the growing scope of accountability and impact for communications functions. This includes new dimensions such as diversity and inclusion, ethics, sustainability and employee experience. As Ryan O’Keeffe of BlackRock stated succinctly, “the pressure on communications now is immense”. The brilliant host of the Conference, Karin Helmstaedt urged us to move beyond our “addiction to speed” and take it slow. This time of layered complexity demands reflection and considered thinking.
  • Shanna Wendt of Coca-Cola, one of the powerhouse organizers of the Summit, challenged participants to recognize the real value and impact of communications. I appreciated her imperative that in the end, we believe in communications as a force for good that can make a real difference to the organizations and communities we serve. Shanna highlighted the “moral imperative” that communications leaders have, particularly during this time of war in Europe and in the Israel-Gaza conflict. In this time of “cognitive warfare” we have a responsibility and a calling to combat misinformation and dis-information.

Disruption

It goes without saying that a communications leadership conference in 2024 is essentially all about disruption. The fundamentals of our business, our mandate, our channels, our audiences and our definition of success have all changed. As a panelist mentioned, we’re not living in an era of change – we’re living through a change of era.

The layers of disruption and ambiguity we’re now navigating through have a distinctive quality. In listening to the conference presentations, it strikes me that collectively we are moving from complicated issues (which can be resolved with expertise, like putting together a Swiss watch) to complex issues which are by their very nature nuanced and vexing. Leaders are used to dealing with the complicated – but there is a uniquely demanding and distressing quality to dealing with complexity. Often, there is no algorithmic solution to a challenging problem…“right” may not be attainable and the best we can do may be to find the least bad of our poor options.

  • Maria Amelie from Fractiverse offered a fantastic keynote on the crucible of the historically significant collapse in trust and parallel runaway developments in generative AI. She offered the most nuanced and pragmatic insights I’ve seen to-date on AI, including its promise and risks. Maria invited participants to shift from hollow marketing and move toward building community as the key transition to building and maintaining trust. Her presentation was captivating, particularly given the current context of elections across Europe and North America as well as concurrent wars. She explained that “cognitive warfare is cheaper than military warfare”, pointing to new battlegrounds for communicators as guardians of truth and trust.
  • In an excellent panel discussion on strategic improvisation, Jesper Falkheimer of EUPRERA set the stage for our age of disruption by explaining that we are currently living in two tracks – modernity and late modern society. He stressed the speed of change as being unprecedented and disorienting, including evolving from “solid systems” to “liquid systems”. He encouraged us to consider learning from the improvisational value of jazz – to have notes, but to also react to the audience and generate in real-time.
  • Sandra Macleod of Echo Research did a beautiful job of presenting recent data on resilience among organizations. Her analysis leads to a conclusion that leaders view culture as the number one predictor of resilience, yet a majority do not feel their current culture is either resilient or change-ready.

I came away from the Summit with renewed energy and optimism, particularly in the context of the global communications community.

Now, what about the original prompt – Is communications too important for the communications department? My answer is a two-parter:

  • First, we have to consider whether we have the right communications department, and the answer is probably not. The vast majority of communications teams in my experience have critical gaps and misalignments in terms of what their organizations require today. From my observation, leaders tend to confuse capacity for capability. Too often the urgent trumps the important and teams hobble along without the bench strength required in the key areas of strategic value, consultative skills, analytical insight, evaluation and technology.
  • Next, communications leadership should be at the heart of what a high-performance organization looks like. Its functional authority and expertise sits in the communications department; however, a communicative, collaborative and community-oriented culture is now a transversal requirement that should be infused across an organization.

As the EACD Summit made clear, the time is now to reimagine communications functions as mission-critical governance guardians and champions of creative sense-making.

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