Meet the Expert
Principal, True North Strategies, LLC
- 35 years experience in corporate communications, heading communications teams at Merck, United Technologies, Purdue Pharma, Yale University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Offers expertise in foundation leadership, academic public affairs, and issues management.
- Founded True North Strategies, LLC, strategic communications consultancy to build on leadership role at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, guiding communications strategy to advance the influence and effectiveness of non-profit organizations.
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Achieving Impact Through Integrated Communications
Principal, True North Strategies, LLC
- Executives seeking greater brand recognition need to integrate and align communications across the enterprise.
- Many executives seek more coverage in traditional and social media, but they are frustrated with the results. They know they have a great product or service, or a noble mission and great people. But they're not getting any traction in the business or trade press and their social media presence is anemic. Often that's because their company is not organized optimally so that marketing, human resources, public relations, state and federal relations, and internal communications work together. All too often these organizational areas are out of alignment in terms of communications.
The value of a company's brand is maximized by a creative, cross-cutting, and responsive communications strategy that unifies the work of all of the outward-facing functions and is aligned with all internal communications.
Leaders need to stop and ask, "Is our message relevant to you and your work? Are we connecting?" and be sure to take the time to listen. Like everyone else, leaders have two ears and one mouth and should use them proportionately. Leaders also should be attuned to what is being said about the company on social media and the blogosphere. Being on top of that should be a critical part of the job and not exclusively the purview of communications staff members.
Leaders should be charismatic, but also fearless about making decisions that could be unpopular. Too often, CEOs think they're running a popularity contest rather than running a company. The best leaders – think Steve Jobs, Mike Bloomberg, or Merck's former CEO Roy Vagelos – understand the importance of setting a clear course and keeping a steady hand on the tiller, despite the inevitable resistance, in order to affect change on a large scale.
- Authentic communication is often outside the comfort level of CEOs.
- Most CEOs are very good at finance, marketing, law or some other specialty for which they've been successively promoted throughout their careers. But usually they hate public speaking, they don't like – or they don't trust - the media, and they don't understand the power of bloggers, Tweeters or Facebook activists. Yet they have to lead their enterprise in a world that is changing dramatically and where communications is a big part of their role. Whether they like it or not, the CEO is the Chief Engagement Officer.
The new social forces, however, are outside of the normal command and control modus operandi of most CEOs. That can be very frustrating. They often respond by clamping down on outgoing communications. At a time when every employee has the power of the press, a containment strategy is rarely effective. A much more reasoned and successful approach is to stop and listen: Be humble and respectful of what you're hearing and try to engage with all of your stakeholders, including your critics, your shareholders, your employees, and, of course, your board. Armed with that feedback, a communications strategy can be charted that is sustainable and actionable.
- Companies punch below their body weight because their communications are not aligned.
- Very large enterprises are often far less visible or influential than firms a fraction of their size. A lack of alignment between strategy and culture and communications is often the cause of this discrepancy. I named my company True North Strategies because I believe everyone in an enterprise needs to be navigating toward a single set of coordinates. Without that shared course, you can invest a lot of time, money and effort, but it won't add up to a strong, coherent brand or message.
There's so much noise to overcome in our media environment that it is easy to be marginalized or ignored. The instinct of most CEOs is to "DO SOMETHING" when they are confronted with a communications problem. But often the answer lies in better listening and in working to understand your key audiences before any action is taken. It is easy to confuse process with progress. Spending more money on marketing, issuing more news releases or having more “town hall meetings” will not have the desired effect if the actions are not aligned and guided by a single, powerful vision that resonates with and is "owned" by all parties.
- Leaders don't engage with their employees.
- Employee engagement is a really important aspect of communications today – it's what drives retention and morale, and the profitability of many companies. Never forget that it's much more expensive to hire a new employee than it is to retain or retrain an existing one.
It is really important for leaders to communicate about – and be genuine about – the importance of maintaining work/life balance, and to recognize the contribution of every employee. Employees should feel that their efforts make a difference. Don't be afraid to celebrate the contributions of individuals while recognizing the value of the team.
- Employee satisfaction and morale is low because internal communications are poor.
- Many companies get fixated on employee surveys and spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to make their workforce happier as well as more productive. But the real problem is often rooted in poor communications.
Too often managers and executives lose their humanity and don't connect with their employees as people, but more as vessels of talent that they can exploit. Employees, particularly millennials, want to feel a connection to the organizations they work for, and they want to feel connected to a greater good. Increasingly, with a younger workforce it is really important to keep in mind that employees want to know that the work they're doing has social value. It's not just not about making the shareholders richer or the directors look smarter.
A good example of this: A private company was in the business of pain management therapeutics. The CEO was really gifted at making sure employees knew that the work they did dramatically reduced the pain and suffering of millions of patients who needed their products to cope with debilitating, chronic pain, which has few remedies. He could have focused his communications on profitability or sales growth or R&D, but his consistent mantra that "you help people feel better" helped create a workforce that felt they were doing something truly important, with enduring value. Nothing does more for morale and employee retention than that.
Achieving Impact Through Integrated Communications: Common Problems