Congrats! You’ve been asked to set up a comms function – now what?
June 4, 2019 (Adapted from my newsletter, The Briefing. Originally published May 22, 2019.)
Chiefs of staff in just about every organization play a role in executive communications – drafting your exec’s all hands email, prepping your exec with a rude Q&A ahead of a presentation, and so forth. This was a big piece of my chief of staff role, where I partnered closely with an existing, well-oiled comms “machine” to get the message right and make sure it was communicated clearly across not just our company but my exec’s entire leadership platform, from board appointments, nonprofit involvement, and speaking engagements. But execs in rapidly growing startups or even midsize organizations often turn to their chief of staff to set up a comms function where one didn’t exist before. If this is you, what do you do, and how and when do you stay involved in comms and how and when do you let the newly-formed comms team shine?
To find out, I recently sat down with Shelby Barnes, a PR and Comms strategist with more than 20 years of experience working with business leaders, technologists and scientists, and 17 years as publicist for technology visionary, Nathan Myhvrold, and his company, Intellectual Ventures. Shelby is currently the senior director of communications at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Check out her insights:
“It’s not really the size of the organization as much as it’s breadth and depth of what needs to be communicated and what access and skills will be needed to perform the work.”
Tyler: A chief of staff gets asked by his or her exec to set up a comms function. Or, the CoS sees the need for a comms function and persuades the exec that it’s worth hiring some folks, but comms is not the CoS’s background or area of expertise. Where does he or she begin in setting up that function?
The best place to begin, of course, is by talking with your existing communications or marketing leaders or people in the organization who might be filling these roles. They’re the ones who can help you determine what the current needs are and what skill sets or resources might be missing.
If you’re starting from scratch, reach out to communicators or marketers in your network. If they’re peers, buy them lunch. If they’re consultants, buy a few hours of their time for their expertise. Ultimately, you’ll want to determine whether to build an internal team or rely on an agency to provide additional resources. Usually, it will be a combination of both.
Questions to ask yourself include:
• Would the organization benefit from having outside perspective on the issue?
• Will the demand for comms support exceed the CoS or in-house team’s ability or skills to deliver?
• Is the volume of work being funneled to an agency going to require an internal contact to manage the external team and navigate the organization?
It’s not really the size of the organization as much as it’s breadth and depth of what needs to be communicated and what access and skills will be needed to perform the work.
“Being grounded in the breadth and depth of what needs to be communicated can help you find the talent you need for the situation you’re in and the impact you’re seeking.”
Tyler: There are lots of different types of communications and communication job specialties, and if you’re not from a comms background, you can kind of get lost in them. Do you put them all together in one place or separate them as distinct functions?
Shelby: If you think of strategic communications as a big bucket, it usually gets divided into external communications and internal communications. Organizations will often house employee and executive communications together since they’re complementary, but there are differences when it comes to the intended audience and channels you use to reach those audiences.
For instance, the president of an organization might have an executive communications platform that involves communicating regularly with a variety of stakeholder groups (employees, board, investors, donors, etc.). The COS might help shape that overall platform and help tier the various stakeholder groups, and the employee communications person focuses on shaping the internal communications aspect of that platform (i.e., the messages to employees as well as mediums such as a monthly email, town halls, small group meetings, etc.). The main difference being the employee comms function itself is a discipline focused on communicating with employees about the issues that matter most to them in ways that motivate and inspire them in support of the organization’s mission.
Media relations, crisis comms, reputation management, investor relations, donor communications, social media and community engagement are primarily external communications functions. And like employee and executive communications, they are specialty disciplines.
For instance, most crisis or reputation issues may involve media relations, but not all media relations involve crisis communications. A donor audience will be moved to action by different messages than an investor audience.
These are examples of why being grounded in the breadth and depth of what needs to be communicated can help you find the talent you need for the situation you’re in and the impact you’re seeking.
Tyler: For internal comms, how can execs tap into informal channels of communication to convey or reiterate key messages, like strategic plans, goals, or direction the organization is headed?
Email, PowerPoint, Yammer, Slack, etc. are all great ways to communicate. As are town halls, dropping in on team meetings, hosting salon gatherings, and other in-person meetings.
But honestly? Actions speak louder the words. The best way to reiterate key messages, goals, and organizational direction is for executives to make business decisions and behave in ways that support the stated priorities and values of the organization. Too often strategic plans get made and then “tombed” or motivational posters with company values get plastered on the walls, but then people see inconsistent actions that run contrary to what they’ve been told. It’s important for employees and your community at large to see consistency through action.
“The best way to reiterate key messages, goals, and organizational direction is for executives to make business decisions and behave in ways that support the stated priorities and values of the organization.”
Tyler: What are some ways you’ve seen chiefs of staff partner with comms? Be at odds with comms?
Shelby: The best way to partner is to treat each function as peers, respect the knowledge and insights each brings, and work together to find the common ground. Ultimately, both functions work in service of the organization. The best way to be at odds is for either function to treat the other as subservient. It’s a partnership. When the chief of staff – or engineers or attorneys or marketing and sales people – say or act as if they are doing “the important work,” and they want comms to communicate about it, as if comms is an afterthought or “just a support role,” you’re in more of the at-odds model. This is not just true of comms, BTW. If a CoS sees any team members acting this way with each other, they’re in a great position to educate the others on the value each brings to the table and influence more partnership. Ultimately, everyone should be supporting the same mission.
Tyler: That brings up a good point. Looking at a current snapshot of over 500 CoS, about 25% come from a comms background, often from being the exec’s speech writer or communications director. That wouldn’t be true if comms is “just a support” function. I have my thoughts about why this is, but why do you think the numbers are that high?
Shelby: Helping others successfully tell their stories in ways that connect and make an impact are hallmarks of any great communications professional. Working with executives 1:1 and successfully translating their ideas into strategic communications platforms that create impact requires specialized skill and experience. Whether you have a formal background in communications or have learned on the job, approaching the challenge as a collaboration can have a great effect on your success in the CoS role and beyond.