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One of my clients tagged me better than I ever could: a creative soul with a strategic mind, helping companies become more self aware.

A call for the omnidirectional communicator

Imagining next-generation communication management

Chapstick™ deletes criticisms from its Facebook page. Bayer closes its Facebook pages to avoid public comment. Facebook uses a PR agency to smear Google. Companies who think they can control the message still seem to be using social media to talk at, rather than listen to their stakeholders. Perhaps they haven’t realized that their constituents are interested in dialogue, not corporate monologues. I believe the problem is more fundamental – companies do not have the skill set or infrastructure for dialogue. They are only geared up for one-way message delivery. This must change if corporations are to have productive stakeholder relationships in the 21st century.

Most communication professionals are aware of, if not actively engaging, the new technologies changing the dynamics between institutions and individuals. In a survey conducted earlier this year, more than 35% of companies interviewed stated they were employing social media to promote themselves. In another survey, over 93% of B2B marketers say they are using some form of social media.

But the social media tornado is just one face of more systemic change. The digital network revolution, a globalized economy and the empowerment of new stakeholders have thrown organizations into a world where collaborate and connect have superseded command and control. As Thomas Friedman outlined in his book The World is Flat, the networked, empowered stakeholder has amped up expectations of corporate behavior, including how they communicate with their constituencies and how they handle that communication.

This does not sit well with most communication executives today. Look at the set-up in a typical Fortune 500 company. The mix of functions usually includes some configuration of corporate communication, marketing communication, internal communication, investor relations, media relations, and public affairs. Different managers lead these functions, often with no common oversight at executive management level. These separate silos have their own activities, and pursue their own agendas. The reality is that the VP of public affairs sitting in Washington DC has no interest in what the marketing communications department is doing in Silicon Valley or what the internal communications manager in Shanghai is struggling with.

Who is listening to whom?
What makes this communication infrastructure even more fragmented and increasingly out of touch is that each function is usually structured, budgeted and staffed to deliver, not to receive or respond to stakeholder communication, and certainly not to audiences beyond their responsibility. Recent corporate attempts at championing the conversation, evident in the establishment of a Chief Listening Officer position at companies such as Dell and Kodak, are welcome developments. But their sole focus is on one stakeholder group – customers. What about employees, partners, investors, government officials, communities? Where is the corporate skill set for integrated listening and participation in their conversations, pulling concerns into executive management decision-making processes, identifying common priorities, acting on them accordingly and then delivering a response? And if the Chief Communication Officer on the executive team is not championing communication competency and leadership as an essential operational KPI in every arena, who is?

What’s wrong with this picture?
Communication Management as a coherent interdisciplinary infrastructure is a pipe dream in most large corporations. Even in many small to mid-size companies, functions are still fragmented in pre-Internet mode, where broadcast thinking reigns. Organizations have not retooled their communication function for this new reality, because they have not had to. This is changing. As the Arthur W. Page Society noted in the landmark report “The Authentic Enterprise”: “These forces [the network revolution, globalization and empowered stakeholders] have created a global playing field of unprecedented transparency and radically democratized access to information production, dissemination and consumption. They are overturning the corporation’s traditional ability to segment audiences and messages and to manage how it wishes to be perceived. Today the corporation’s relationship with one constituency is readily visible to all constituencies, who are multiplying in number and growing in sophistication.”

In the hyper-networked, always on world, corporations need a radically different communication infrastructure and leadership than they have today. They must rebuild this infrastructure in the image of the world they now operate in. The Chief Communication Officer and his or her team must become omnidirectional. Social media matters, but is not the end game.

The omnidirectional communicator is a:
Visionary who sees all audiences as one, keeping one eye on the bigger picture, one on the detail
Strategist to help executive management understand how to retool for this new world
Network orchestrator to mobilize and handle the organization’s communication flows
Evangelist who builds conviction and competency at every operational level.

Communication Management 2.0
In a flat world, the dynamics of listening become acute as the expectations of every empowered stakeholder group – customers, employees, investors, partners and communities – overlap, merge and become amplified. As social concerns become increasingly embedded in these expectations, the role of communication will be integrally tied to continuous awareness of corporate social responsibilities. But this is not just about being better corporate listeners or integrated marketers.

Corporations must retool for the integrated handling of inbound communication on a scale they have not conceived of before. Executive management must be convinced. Trade organizations like the PRSA, Global Alliance and IABC must help nurture and champion new communication leadership that intuitively manages these new integrated dialogues. More importantly, we – professional communicators – must evolve from seeing the world in terms of control and deliver, to orchestrate and evangelize. The boundaries between PR, branding, corporate communication, marketing communication, indeed all the communication disciplines are beginning to melt away toward one unified field. The omnidirectional communicator must be the force behind this transformation.

Image courtesy of Wired magazine.

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