Top signs your communications team is in trouble – and what to do about it


Let’s face it – nobody has a perfect communications team. There are always things we’d want to tweak – it would probably be better to have a bit more evaluation, tighter processes and a stronger planning culture.

Fair enough. However, at what point do these areas for improvement turn into something more significant, and signal that the communications team is actually in trouble? From my experience with hundreds of communications teams, here are the tell-tale signs to watch for:

The first one is when your internal clients do an end-run around you and hire their own communications consultants. I see this happen all the time, and frankly, we get these kinds of calls regularly. This is obviously a problem.

There’s no way it would be seen as acceptable for an internal client to call his own electrician if he wanted to get an extra plug put in his office – clearly, he is supposed to go through proper channels and contact the facilities service. Ditto for legal services – it would not be copasetic to just reach out and get external legal advice without first consulting with your legal department.

This pattern of internal clients hiring their own external communications services is symptomatic of weak governance and is very often rooted in a deep level of dissatisfaction. The internal clients in this kind of environment have come to see our function as the Communications Police – the people who’ll tell them what they can’t do, instead of being valuable partners to achieving their business goals.  

Related to this problem is that communications teams are chronically under-resourced. Internal expectations are sky-high, yet the team doesn’t have nearly the human or financial resources required to fulfil the need. This is dangerous because it leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since communications is under-resourced, the team is bound to be providing a mediocre level of service. As a result, clients have come to understand that the communications team is not that great and as such they don’t call them into meetings or consult them on major decisions, which of course just perpetuates the problem.

These are the teams who have become a dumping ground for ad hoc requests. No one seems quite sure what’s within scope to communications, so any random requirement involving words or making things look pretty gets shipped over to the communicators to deal with it.

Other tells of sure-fire trouble include the ratio of the team’s time spent generating valuable work versus non-productive churn such as useless revisions, is out of whack. I see teams who spend 30-50% of their time on running their communications products through ridiculous approval systems that don’t add any value. This is a red flag pointing to an issue of weak governance.

Another example of trouble is when communicators consistently feel like they’re pushing up a rope. Basically, they’re selling solutions that no one’s in the market to buy. That’s another sign of internal disconnect and misalignment.

Finally, we’ve all seen communications teams that just seem to be constantly in a reactive crisis mode, jumping from one fire to another. As the saying goes, people who spend most of their time putting out fires are usually the arsonists. This pattern is usually an indicator of a culture that thrives on drama and over-values reactivity.

So, what’s a weary communicator to do if you spot some or all of these signs of trouble? First off, you’re already making progress by gaining an insight on the specific challenges you’re facing – that’s much easier to deal with than the more common general feeling that things aren’t quite right. You can use this free Results Map® Communications Function Maturity Scale as a diagnostic instrument to help zoom in on areas of gaps and opportunities. Feel free to reach out to bounce ideas, or find other Results Map® resources to support you and your team.

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