One management responsibility that Chief Communication Officers take seriously is organizational design. Research shows that most CCOs conduct a formal review of their PR/C department structure every 3-5 years. 

Organizational design is a balancing act. A department’s structure is a balance of the:

  • Technical, strategic and advisory service offerings of the department;
  • Assigned roles and responsibilities for each offering;
  • Tasks and activities that comprise those roles and responsibilities;
  • Workloads that result from those roles and responsibilities;
  • Decision-making authority and accountability assigned to each role; and
  • Leveraging of the department’s managerial and technical talent, in particular the specialists dedicated to each role. 

Offerings, roles, activities, workloads, authorities and talents must all be considered when balancing the make up of organizational units and when balancing these units across an organizational structure. 

The right balance differs depending on the size of the department. Recent research indicates that size determines the shape or configuration of the department, particularly the stratification or the number of levels of hierarchy. Few department structures are scalable as they grow beyond 10, then 25, then 50, then 100, employees. These are points at which the CCO must restructure, add a new level of hierarchy and with it, then restructure the number and purpose of the various organizational units as well as realign the reporting relationships of those units and their leaders. 

Department size also determines the ratio of specialist positions to generalist positions. Research says that that the larger the department, the greater the number of specialist positions that can be deployed and the greater the number of organizational units dedicated to each communication specialty. On the other hand, experience teaches that, regardless the size of the department, most departments offer the same list of disciplines or service offerings, such as: corporate/external communication; internal communication; media relations; reputation and brand, issues communication; digital, web and social media; and stakeholder communication (client; customer; member; community; government; etc.). 

Most departments have a high degree of complexity in the smorgasbord worth of services they provide their organization. The ability to specialize (the degree to which work is undertaken by specialist roles) increases with size. Size and the concurrent degree of specialization together affect the horizontal structure - the number and purpose of each organizational unit - at each level of stratification or hierarchy. 

Complexity is inherent in any modern PR/C department. Complexity is the extent of differentiation in services offered, the number of different component parts in each service and/or the degree to which work is divided up into sets of operational activities/skills. The larger the department, the easier it is to tackle the inherent complexity by creating specialist roles: writer technician; video technician; channel technician (web; Twitter; YouTube; etc.); planner; strategist; account executive; advisor; manager; etc. But, larger departments foster more complex management needs for the internal flow of information, tasking, product creation, decision-making and approvals. This leads to the need for additional administrative and management roles, which, in turn, affects the department’s configuration (the ‘shape’ of the department’s hierarchical or vertical structure, including chain of command and span of control).   

Centralization reflects the degree of integration of the PR/C function. Centralization is the degree to which power and control over decisions is held within the top management hierarchy. Research shows the importance of an integrated PR/C function. That integration can be achieved in a number of ways: as an organization-wide single PR/C department; as a collective of separate units with each head reporting directly to a HQs CCO; or a collective of separate units reporting functionally to a HQs CCO. Organizational integration, since it affects the integration of common strategy and planning mechanisms, is important given it’s a foundation for: CCO reporting relationships; the CCO as a member of the highest level board; and executive committee and CCO input being valued as a member of that committee. 

A CCO’s effective use of the human capital value is also a determining factor in decisions about department structure. Recent research reveals that CCOs understand the need to retain and to fully utilize the talent they have on staff. Putting the right people in the right positions helps create the right structure. The right positions may include certain product or channel specialist positions, account executive positions with certain internal clients, middle management positions in charge of particular operational processes, or advisor to the CCO positions that help balance weaknesses in a CCO’s own background. 

Decisions about structure are contingent on a range of factors. Interestingly enough, one of those is not the structure of the organization itself. It doesn’t seem to matter if the organization’s structure is one of the classic five structures: simple; M-form; U-form; matrix; or networked/virtual. According to the research, the key factors are: complexity of service offerings; degree of specialization; utilization of human capital; degree of centralization; type of configuration; and departmental size. 

Research clearly demonstrates that all PR/C department structures are hybrids. CCOs play a primary role in determining structure and the structure is customized to the immediate - and perhaps short-term future - needs of the department. That’s why CCOs must constantly adjust and conduct more formal reviews every few years, especially after the CCO is hired, after a new CEO is hired, after significant organizational change, or even after the recruitment to the department of exceptional talent.