You just landed a job running the communications shop of an organization, and you can't wait to dive in. You start to build the necessary relationships, draw up strategic plans and get people excited with your big picture thinking.
And then… nothing. Your new plans stall, initiatives don’t go anywhere, and you start to question how much appetite there is to try new things.
That’s when it dawns on you that the biggest challenge you face isn’t budget, resources or inherent desire – it’s the culture in which you operate.
In my experience, even the most talented communications leaders can find it difficult to overcome the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking in an organization. That’s because, as powerful as it may be, it’s also nebulous. It’s never written down or enforced by any one person. It’s simply the air everyone has chosen to breathe, and they aren’t inclined to question it.
While not an easy task, there are ways to break through the cultural malaise standing in the way of positive change. It all starts by recognizing the kind of cultural trap you face, and how to deal with it.
These leadership teams value consensus building above all else, often as a way to avoid making tough decisions. For communications professionals, that means that everyone is a stakeholder. Sure, the marketing team may be comfortable with your plan, but has this been run by HR? Or the sales lead who sits multiple time zones away who is impossible to reach, and doesn’t know the first thing about good versus bad communications? Meanwhile, the meetings to discuss the feedback and find alignment get pushed and eventually lost amid the daily bustle.
The best way to tackle this is to fall back on the old adage about saying sorry versus asking for permission. See an opportunity to get a result that, in theory, requires a group’s sign off? Go for it – without permission, if necessary. Get the win, and then market it back. Overthinking cultures aren’t necessarily interested in avoiding action, they’re afraid of risk.
Remember, wins will always find supporters, and make it more likely that plans will get green-lit in the future. Or at least, you’ll know how much runway you have to act in the future.
One of the weirdest mindsets I come across when working with clients is the one that views silence as a virtue. These are the organizations that speak to media or post content only when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they don’t like to talk or make noise. Why? There’s no real explanation, that’s just how they are. They’re happy to let competitors hog the spotlight and tell their stories. In my experience, this kind of thinking usually stems from a bad experience buried in the past that led the organization to cocoon itself, or the influence of a nervous, gun-shy senior leader.
For PR people, this usually means constantly trying to get someone to do something, and watching in frustration as golden opportunities to drive brand awareness come and go. The best approach here is to enlist allies. Find a customer or partner who is open to doing a case study. It’s harder to say no to someone tied to revenue than it is to a communications director. Or, try getting senior leaders on the event/speaking circuit and drive coverage and content that way, as it comes at no extra effort to them. Finally, try to use your competitors to your advantage. Set up a steady stream of emails of coverage and blog posts showing them winning in the industry and keep at it. It’s hard to deny what’s in front of you.
Then there are the organizations that take their entire cue from the whims of very talented but very erratic leaders. The only priorities that matter are the ones on their mind that day. Important work is often stalled as other executives deal with side projects these leaders like to dream up and implement, only to just as quickly abandon them. And just one stumbled-upon article or random comment made at an event can lead to major (and unplanned) course corrections.
For communications professionals, this kind of culture can be a blessing and a curse. These leaders often love the spotlight and can’t get enough of it, making results much easier to achieve. The downside is they love to talk and write about whatever they feel like in a given moment. The result is a job that feels more like damage control than communication strategy.
I recently had coffee with an old colleague who encountered this. Their solution? Create vanity projects – essentially, fill up the leader’s calendar and keep them busy with speaking events, approving pre-drafted bylines, or challenging them to write a certain number of blog posts on key topics. Stroke their ego and channel their energy for good, but leave them with little spare time to come up with their own solutions.
Some cultures can’t be fixed. But for PR professionals who like a challenge or truly believe in the organizations they serve, taking time to address culture head on can pay big dividends down the road.
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