What’s Your Medicine?

Posted by: in Communication Strategy on February 2, 2012

Do your Communications efforts focus on the symptom or the cause?

In today’s highly charged and demanding business world, organizations can often get up in the wrong things. That is, in an effort to just keep pace leaders and communicators tend to act before they think. This can lead to spending time and resources on chasing symptoms instead of causes.

Imagine for a moment a professor who did not prepare a proper course module nor enforced specific rule in terms of attendance. The result of which meant students came and went during the lecture and did not pay attention during class?

What if this same professor then offered each student $20 to attend and stay in class for the full term but did not upgrade the module or lay down rules?

Or, if a physician, instead of recommending exercise and a sound diet, said, “Just take some vitamins and let’s not bother designing a healthy regimen until you’re overweight and have sky-high cholesterol.”

Both examples are an extreme way of highlighting when the focus is on the symptom and not the cause. Yet, all-too-many communications professionals essentially offer that type of advice in precisely that manner! And leaders too often (unwittingly) encourage it.

In a business environment in which the anticipation, diagnosis, and preemption of challenges is of paramount importance, many communicators remain content to stand idly by until, in medical parlance, the patient is being wheeled into the operating room for emergency surgery. Then they spring into action! With luck, the patient can still be saved.

Alas, despite everything we’ve learned about strategic communications over the past two decades or more, many corporations remain analogous to stubborn patients who refuse to see their doctors despite knowing better. What’s worse in this case is that the communications counselor is too often complicit, willing to continue focusing on the latest technology while the organization’s very viability comes under threat from factors ranging from competitive pressures to globalization.

Now, more than ever, corporations and the communicators who advise them must once and for all break out of the old, limiting models of behavior and recognize that communications only makes a real difference when it’s consultative and initiatory – not tactical and reactive.
We must offer solutions that attack the disease, so to speak, that goes right at the cause, not merely provide a bunch of activities meant to address only the symptoms. It means moving beyond the message right into the types of actions or decisions necessary to convey the right position.

Aspirin or Penicillin?

It is incumbent upon today’s communications professional to aspire to more than just getting things done. Communications is uniquely qualified to help corporate managements operate in an environment in which constituent dialogue, crisis prevention and mitigation, and product and service differentiation are of utmost importance.

This means a change of behavior is needed among both communicators and corporate managements.

Communicators need to “step up” by staying current on industry issues and competitive challenges, and by viewing the world through a prism of business growth and reputation management (rather than procedural excellence alone), will communicators prove that their functional expertise is of true consequence.

Corporate managements, on the other hand, need to stop viewing public relations and communications as a “function” that is separate and distinct from the management model. Doing so marginalizes the value of communications, and undercuts the company’s ability to achieve meaningful goals pertaining to reputation, growth and transformation.

Reverting back to medical analogies, many corporations continue to consider communications the equivalent of aspirin; a resource of greatest value after an event (whether it’s a jolt to company reputation, a major crisis, or a competitive blow). In the communications-as-aspirin model, communications is limited to treating organizational symptoms, rather than their root causes.

The expectations all around should be higher. Managements should instead demand that communications serve as “penicillin,” able to tackle the root causes of management, strategy, internal or external relationships, issues or problems. Like penicillin, a confident communications professional’s input might be initially hard to swallow or even distasteful. Yet, just as often, it’s absolutely imperative to improving organizational health, or even preventing negative symptoms from festering to begin with.

Real world examples
Consider the following “ripped from the headline” examples, and whether communications was likely playing the role of “penicillin” or “aspirin”:

  • RIM, the maker of Blackberry, which has lost its market leadership if not its very purpose by misreading consumer tastes and failing to leverage its first mover positioning in the Corporate world.
  • Sears’ slide into oblivion having more to do with a leadership led “apathy” that resulted in second-tier stores, cheap merchandise, little or no standards, and weak employee service.
  • GM’s decision to drastically change how it managed its brands and its production becoming more market focused thus reducing the need for costly and destructive incentives.
  • McDonald’s reality check of its own brand resulting in efforts to enhance its menu with more nutritional fare, a welcome approach back to basics for consistent hot food, clean restaurants, and quick service, and novel programs such introducing “built-in” restaurant gyms for youth.

Certainly, no one would be sufficiently naïve to suggest that the Communications function alone could have prevented the first two incidences, or that Communications alone was influential in allowing the last two organizations to refocus its business on causes not symptoms. .

But, recalibrating Communications to be strategic and integrated into the decision-making apparatus can result in a much clearer understanding of organizational choices. The same choices that GM and McDonald’s saw while RIM and Sears did not!

Heal thyself
So, as communicators, how do we see ourselves? Can we examine your own approaches and to determine if we are dispensing disease-attacking penicillin or symptom-abating aspirin:

  • When does Communications get involved in strategic planning and decision making: before or after decisions are made?
  • Do communicators focus more on tactical outputs (blogs, newsletters, news releases, events) or strategic inputs (advice, positioning, reputation analysis, competitive intelligence)?
  • In terms of sophistication, is communications on par with legal and HR counsel?
  • Do we gauge communications results by business growth, sales, productivity or traditional measures?” By industry reputation or by activity reports? By employee engagement (retention, development, productivity) or the number of teams formed, or memos distributed?

Finally…consider the fact that if you suddenly become ill, your doctor is likely your first call. If something goes wrong in our client organizations or with our clients – when does Communications including outside firms get called?

When the call ultimately does get made, what will we offer: Penicillin or Aspirin?

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One Response

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  1. Yes! It’s easy to fall into the trap of chasing symptoms. A great perspective that I’m excited to share with my friends. Thanks for sharing.

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