The tax on your communications shop


If you’re like most communications leaders I know, you’re probably paying a gigantic, recurring, and invisible tax bill on your communications shop.

At best, this is vexing. At worst, it may well be what’s holding you and your team back from unleashing your talent and working at the top of your scope of practice and expertise.

Make no mistake: organizational debt is dangerous. Not only does it threaten your performance, but in the context of today’s talent wars, it’s also erosive to your communications team’s engagement and retention.

Let’s do a quick forensic accounting exercise and look at the top 10 line items that may be on your communications team’s tax bill:

1. Weak governance. Communications teams chronically suffer from ill-defined governance, which is a major source of frustration and wasted resources. The team’s scope, roles, responsibilities and functional authority should be clearly articulated and shared. A simple governance charter shared among senior leaders can zap endless hours of subjective squabbling as to who’s on first in key areas such as issue management, organizational communications and branding. Ask yourself – how would a new executive in your organization know how they are supposed to engage with your communications team, what they can expect and what the rules of engagement are? If this is not clear, you are paying an invoice and it’s going to be ugly.

2. Churn. This is non-productive, non-value generating work such as over-consulting, broken approval processes and burdensome reporting requirements. In conducting a functional review for one client, we asked communicators to track what percentage of time they spent on “churn” vs “high value work”. We found that over 40% of time was spent on “churn”, representing a direct staff cost of over $1.2 million annually. Even if your team’s churn rate is half that, it’s enough of a drain to limit your ability to operate with the agility and responsiveness that your senior executives likely demand.

3. Misalignment. Fundamentally, we don’t communicate for the sake of communicating – we communicate in service of a business goal. Yet this strategic alignment between communications and business objectives is often fuzzy. Just as a builder should work from architectural plans rather than laying bricks around randomly, so too should communications teams be guided by strong, practical and legitimized strategic communications plans. If you’re navigating without a map, your operations will come with a significant cost of time, confusion and misfires. Similarly, without a basic framework of objectives and associated performance indicators, your hands are tied behind your back in trying to make evidence-informed decisions on activities to invest in, and tactics that should be phased out or replaced. Put bluntly, if you don’t have a communications planning infrastructure, you have no idea what’s working and what’s not, whether your activities work coherently together, or where you should invest or divest moving forward.

4. Scope creep. This is a biggie and is probably the unintended consequence of communicators being too nice. We tend to pick up other people’s parcels and then find we’re stuck with them. Is your communications shop responsible for stakeholder engagement? For your company’s social events? Making PowerPoints for Vice-Presidents? Perhaps. But it’s important that the scope of responsibility and commensurate authority be clear and appropriate given expectations and available resources.

5. Tactical tunnel vision. COVID has exacerbated the problem of fragmented communications teams in which talented people are working on tactics in isolation from one another. This leads to huge inefficiencies and disconnects. Compounding this challenge is that the tendency to focus on the channel for communication often causes a critical lack of focus on the essential strategic product of communication – messaging, content and strategic storytelling. The result is a weak signal-to-noise ratio and a worrisome trend in which communicators often teach audiences to ignore their tactics because they are perceived as cluttered and irrelevant. This is an unsustainable price tag to pay as professionals engaged in the warfare of the attention economy.

6. Gaps in integration. Organizations often have costly disconnects between centres of activity related to communications. These include pernicious gaps in integration between internal and external communications; between HR and internal communications; as well as between marketing and communications. This tax shows up as missed opportunities, duplication of effort and often a time suck related to internal conflicts or power struggles.

7. Lack of process. This is a massive cost centre for most communications teams in which there tends to be an ad hoc, individual-driven way of working. Reinventing the wheel is rampant, and basic project management systems are almost non-existent. It’s worth doing an audit to assess whether you have the fundamentals in place – a digital project management/tracking system is a must, as are defined processes for core activities such as web publishing, intranet production, issue management and strategic planning. If you’re looking for templates, we’ve got you covered.

8.  Launch and abandon. Sadly, passionate and dedicated communications professionals tend to invest a ton of time and energy in good initiatives that are then cancelled or just fizzle out. This is a huge resource drain. Careful due diligence should be taken before embarking on any new initiatives, and it’s important to ensure that the basic enabling conditions for success are in place. Before saying “yes” to a new shiny project such as a podcast or newsletter, consider whether you have the necessary resources of time, staff and budget to succeed in the long term. Otherwise, that ambitious new weekly communications product that dies on the vine over the first few months is not only flushing money down the drain, it is also potentially damaging your team’s reputation for delivering.

9. Turnover. The rate of turnover among communications professionals is at an all-time high and this is a triple whammy in terms of cost. Firstly, losing top talent (often because they feel they aren’t set up to perform at their best) is a huge drain on performance. Secondly, it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to recruit, interview and hire new staff. Thirdly, a revolving door of communicators often leads to a lack of critical mass in terms of internal subject matter expertise and relationship equity which can hamstring a team’s ability to perform. Consider that if a Communications Vice President is spending 30 or 40 hours on a strategic recruitment effort five times per year, this adds up to the equivalent of about a month’s lost time for that executive.

10. Firefighting. Many communications teams have a cultural mindset of firefighting – everything is a crisis, and they jump from one urgent problem to the next. With few exceptions, this is usually symptomatic of weak strategy and governance. The cost of firefighting is the primacy of the urgent over the important. I worry when communications leaders tell me they don’t have time to think, because it means high value work is in jeopardy. It bears mentioning that as the saying goes, people who put out fires all the time are often the arsonists. This is a costly, inefficient and crazy-making way to run a communications shop.

Why does this accounting matter? Especially in the world of hybrid and of the extraordinary pressures of the pandemic, communications shops are almost universally asked to do more with less – or at least with no new financial or human resources. In such a zero-sum game, the only way to address the increasing demands of internal clients and of your audiences is to liberate trapped value, moving it from tax debt to performance and impact. It’s worth doing a careful assessment of the tax bills you may be inadvertently paying – consider the potential for financial, reputational, performance and opportunity costs.

To explore possible sources of organizational debt in your communications team, check out this clip on Top Signs Your Communications Team is In Trouble. You can also use this free diagnostic Communications Function Maturity Scale™ from our Results Map® Communications Director’s Handbook – drop me a line if you want to discuss your findings and options for solutions.

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