Mendoza School of Business

Faculty expert: The credibility gap in corporate communication and public relations

Published: November 4, 2014 / Author: James O'Rourke IV

A good friend of mine served as chief communication officer of a prominent Chicago bank some years ago and, on occasion, will tell the story of an encounter with his chief executive and the limitations of his own credibility.

At a senior team meeting one morning, my friend leaned forward to offer an idea and was brushed back by the CEO.  “I think this will be helpful,” he said.  “Not now,” his chief replied.  A repeated request for air-time was directly rebuffed.  He button-holed his boss in the hallway after the meeting and asked, “What was that about?  I have an idea that I think will be helpful to the bank.”  The CEO looked directly at him and said, “Kurt, you don’t know how the hell banks make money.  And, until you figure that out, you’ll just be the guy who writes press releases.  Got that?”

As painful and humiliating as that felt, my friend was more motivated than ever, first to find out how banks actually make money, and second to establish some credibility for the communication function in his organization.  It took him several years, untold personal hours of study and travel, and a substantial commitment to the process, but he did it, and was able to sit up at that conference table and speak in a language bankers understood.  Too bad more communication professionals aren’t similarly motivated.

Plainly said, too many communication specialists just don’t have any business acumen.  They don’t understand how the organizations that employ them make money.  Worse, they can’t articulate the competitive advantage or value proposition their employers offer.  They are unable to describe in detail the scale, scope and organization of their marketspace.  They can’t explain the elements of their supply chain, the processes at work in their operations, and management’s strategy for capturing or growing marketshare.  Worse yet, the vast majority of them can’t read a balance sheet, explain the elements of an income statement, or describe the requirements of an SEC 8-K. 

Not that they’re alone.  Plenty of people in most businesses can’t describe those documents and are completely in the dark on whether their company competes on price, quality, service, or selection.  Most don’t understand the powerful forces of change in their markets, nor can they explain how their firm is reacting to change in the economy.

Communication professionals with little or no understanding of business are ubiquitous.  They’re literally everywhere.  They can crank out a press release if someone else tells them what to say; they can plan a product rollout if someone shows them how the device works.  They are, in a word, completely dependent.  They rely on the expertise of others within the business to do their own jobs.

The remarkable thing, to me, is that this is all fixable.  Let me offer three basic suggestions for senior communicators in large and complex organizations.  First, it takes so long to develop senior CCO-level talent because it takes a very long time for most communicators to acquire business skills.  Why not hire entry-level Corporate Communication talent with business school or economics training?  It’s much easier for me to teach a BBA or an MBA how to write a narrative lead or a set of Q-and-A’s than it is to teach a journalism or communication graduate how to read a balance sheet or an income statement.  Those B-School undergrads have studied finance, capital markets, macro- and micro-economics, statistics, marketing, data base analysis, accounting and financial reporting (and, surprisingly, communication).

Second, how about corporate sponsorship for an MBA (two years) or a one-year (Master of Science in Management, Master of Science in Finance, and Master of Science in Business Analytics) degree program?  Identify high-promise employees and tag them for 11 months of advanced education.

Third, how about in-house training?  It’s possible to bring in experts who can teach your communicators how their clients make money.  Consider a two-day or three-day seminar on capital markets, supply chain management, cash flow management, life-cycle cost accounting, SEC reporting requirements, marketing data base analysis, predictive analytics, or more.  Business school faculty would be willing to craft a custom-tailored program for as many of your people as you can fit in the room.  Your people don’t get a degree or even a certificate, but they do get some understanding of process and structure, as well as some vocabulary and street cred in business.

It’s up to us to grow our own communication leaders.  We can’t simply poach talent from a competitor and think we’ve done our jobs.  We can build loyalty, talent, skill, and integrity in our own staffs.

As a graduate student at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, in the UK during the 1970s, I lived near the chambers once occupied by the naturalist Charles Darwin.  His Voyage of HMS Beagle and On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection fascinated me as a young student.  What’s most interesting to me is the misinterpretation of his original work.  The lesson of Darwin isn’t “Survival of the Fittest.”  The lesson is “Adaptation to a Changing Environment Ahead of the Requirement for It.”  Those who adapt live to breed more of their own kind.

Change is inexorable.  If we refuse to change, if we fail to adapt, our competitors will.  And, should we survive in a changing world, it will be under someone else’s direction.  Remember that an environment I design for myself will be far easier to live in than one designed for me by someone else.

Management Professor James S. O’Rourke IV is the Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

View this essay on the Center on Reputation website.

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