Structure follows strategy (Alfred Chandler 1962). Thus, organizational management (organization of roles, responsibilities, accountabilities, service and capability offerings, work processes, reporting relationships) follows strategic management, with performance management following organizational management. From experience, we know that CCOs wrestle with strategic management, the first crucial step needed to get the department right.

No two PR/Communication functions are the same. They are housed in organizations with histories and evolutionary stories, cultures, personalities and strategic directions different from all others. Therefore, each PR/C function should be seen as unique, particularly with regard to strategic intent (vision; mission; mandate; and values). Regardless of the common aspirations found in documents such as the Arthur W. Page Society’s Authentic Enterprise or the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate, PR/C functions are - and should be - exceptional with regard to strategic intent. 

It’s in developing or growing that strategic intent that I’ve worked hand in hand with CCOs and their management teams. Are we simply a support function? Are we simply a service department? Are we simply communicators? Are we simply technicians, with expertise in communication messaging, products and channels? Are we simply the specialists who get the message out? If there is more than that, then what are we? Benchmarking, business case development, strategy mapping, logic modeling, value chains, performance measurement frameworks, balanced scorecards, etc. are all tools that can be employed when working with a PR/C management team to appreciate how PR/C can create higher order value. Vision and mission statements, business models, core service agreements, performance frameworks and strategic resource choices are the deliverables that taken together demonstrate the PR/C department’s value proposition. Ultimately, the better practice is to have departmental and organizational consensus on where and how PR/C contributes to the strategic management of the organization and its business units and how PR/C is to be managed strategically. 

Surprisingly, many PR/C departments define themselves solely on what they produce. We can produce this and this and this for you, should you ask. Unsurprisingly, few PR/C teams fail to deliver. Yet, it is not strategy development that’s problematic in most organizations, it is strategy execution. Study after study in the management literature suggests that CEOs believe that the lack of excellence in strategy execution or goal implementation is the greatest challenge they face as organizational leader. So, on one hand, communicators are providing exceptional product. On the other hand, business units are not executing the formulated, deliberate strategic plan and the formal business strategy. Surely, this is a critical disconnect! 

If business units can’t plan and deliver the required excellence in business strategy execution, then the better practice is to have the PR/C department assist, applying its stakeholder relations/behavioural change/change management expertise. If the PR/C department is to be part of the organization’s strategic management process, then developing this expertise is essential. In my training, facilitating or coaching sessions, the intent is to move the PR/C department from order taker to business strategy execution strategist. This should become the core service of the department, for when it reaches full potential, it is how the department sustains value creation over time. Of course, the CCO will need core competencies of research, analysis and planning and understand that the stages of communication overlap the stages of strategy execution and targeted behavioural change. 

Beyond working with CCOs and their management teams on strategic intent, strategic planning and strategic management projects, I’ve had the privilege of providing coaching to scores of CCOs, as part of a larger exercise or as a stand-alone assignment. I’ve worked one-on-one developing models and frameworks and policy and planning documents. I’ve created business cases, working together. Most importantly, I’ve worked with CCOs on their own leadership roles, within the organization’s management and within their own function. As Sison (2009) found, many PR/C heads understand function management but have difficulty fulfilling either or both leadership roles. There is a difference as Bennis and Townsend (1997, p.12) point out: “The manager maintains: the leader develops.” There is a difference between a CCO’s management activities and a CCO’s leadership activities. 

In management, the core activities are: 

  • Planning and Budgeting;
  • Organizing and Staffing; and
  • Controlling and Problem Solving. 

On the other hand, the core activities of leadership are: 

  • Visioning and Strategizing; 
  • Energizing, Motivating and Inspiring; and 
  • Aligning and Enabling (J.P. Kotter, 1990 & 1999). 

My own research as well as my own experience working with CCOs suggests that CCOs must define a number of ‘buckets’ in which to place leadership activity, prioritize these buckets given any immediate needs when necessary but continually expend effort on each bucket. I’ve applied the buckets as researched by Farkas and De Becker (1996b p.110). They posit five buckets or five distinct approaches, each a different way for the CCOs to provide leadership: 

  • The Strategy Approach; 
  • The Human-Assets Approach; 
  • The Expertise Approach; 
  • The Box Approach; and 
  • The Change Approach. 

The following explanations for each approach are from a paper I presented at the annual International Public Relations Research Conference, held each March in Miami. The link to the paper can be found below.

“The Strategic Approach suggests that the head believes her or his “most important job is to create, test, and design long-term strategy …” (C.M. Farkas and S. Wetlaufer, 1996b). Emphasis is placed on branch vision, mission, purpose, positioning, desired future, direction and mapping the route between point of departure and point of arrival. Heads using this approach spend considerable time outside the branch understanding the threats and opportunities in the branch environment. They meet with department executives and internal clients. They set up committees and networks with their stakeholders. They commission studies: client satisfaction reviews; benchmarking reviews; and environment scans. They examine service and product lines and resource allocations from an outside-in perspective. They restructure, reorganize and re-allocate resources. They want to know what the department needs from the branch. They lead by being the branch visionary and chief general strategist. They delegate the day-day operations to others.

The Human-Assets Approach suggests that the head believes her or his job is “to impart to their organization certain values, behaviors, and attitudes by closely managing the growth and development of individuals” (C.M. Farkas and S. Wetlaufer, 1996b). The head’s time is spent on human resource management, particularly performance reviews, career development, succession planning and retention, recruitment and orientation activities. The head sees in her or him the proper values, behaviours and attitudes and wants to see the same in other executives and managers. They place importance on workplace health and well-being programs. They create developmental positions and opportunities to move to new challenges. They support mentoring. Strategy is left to business units within the branch who face the client. Heads stay in the branch and like to work ‘face-to-face’ with their people. They see leadership as putting personal effort into recruiting the right people on to the ‘team’ and into ensuring the branch is a good place to work.

The Expertise Approach suggests that the head sees his or her job ‘is selecting and disseminating within the corporation an area of expertise that will be a source of competitive advantage” (C.M. Farkas and S. Wetlaufer, 1996b). That is, the branch will not just be good but will be great at one area of expertise, one that’s very important to department well being at that point in time. For example, the branch will be excellent at research and evaluation, daily public issues management and communication support for the Minister of the department, or support for internal policy, program and operations clients with their communication programs to stakeholders and Canadian citizens. Heads spend their time making this area of expertise great. They take a hands-on role with ideas, systems, processes and resource allocation to ensure effectiveness at the level they desire. They are concerned with on-the-ground competence and quality. Not much time or a significant level of resource is given to strategy, human assets or control mechanisms unless change is required to support the chosen area of expertise. 

The Box Approach suggests that the head sees her or his job as “creating, communicating, and monitoring an explicit set of controls …” “ … they devote more time than the other types of CEOs to developing detailed, prescriptive policies, procedures and rewards …” (C.M. Farkas and S. Wetlaufer, 1996b). They design systems. They have policy systems (government communication policy; departmental communication policy; guidelines for every communication activity such as for spokespersons or intranet use; and staff procedures), planning systems (annual plan, client plans, regional office plans, project plans; and action plans) and performance systems (branch performance measurement; communication program measurement; product measurement; and staff performance reviews). They spend time building systems and assessing exceptions against system standards. They invest resources in dedicated policy, planning and performance units. They have manuals, web sites and full documentation. Heads lead by promoting and policing the rules. 

Finally, the Change Approach suggests that the head feels her or his job is “to create an environment of continual reinvention.” Heads spend their time motivating their staff to “embrace the gestalt of change” (C.M. Farkas and S. Wetlaufer, 1996b). They support learning, professional development, well-endowed training budgets and awards programs. They question, deconstruct and reinvent everything, searching out new ideas well beyond the government communication community. They focus not on the desired end state but on the process of getting there. They reward risk taking. They run interference in the department, in support of different paradigms and fresh ideas. They hire employees and consultants who can think outside the box. While they want everything reinvented, they also want consensus to develop. They cheerlead, award and team build. They favour large group meetings, believing their role is to bring passion and energy to the group. Heads lead by championing and supporting an attitude of learning and reinvention.”

These are five leadership practices for how the CCO can lead the department. Certainly, there are other approaches. Leadership is intertwined with strategic management and managing strategically. It’s about vision – the CCO’s vision! I enjoy working with CCOs in developing their vision. Because of my time as a CCO, as a PR/C researcher and as a PR/C management consultant, I can bring the wisdom of a seasoned coach. Without that finely tuned CCO vision, organizational management and performance management are not nearly as well developed nor well performed. 

Leadership development is a personal exercise, one that I believe is where I must be the most discreet. While strategic management can be and should be worked out with the department’s full management team, finding the right leadership approach - and evolving it - for the CCO is a personal learning experience.

Want to understand how my approach developed over the years? Here is a small selection of articles:

  1. Likely, F. (2013) Public Relations/Communication Department CCO Reporting: What Information Do CEOs Truly Need? Proceedings. Paper presented at the 16th International Public Relations Research Conference, March; Miami.
  2. Likely, F. (2004). Beyond the manager and the technician roles: Exploring an executive or executive leader role for the head of a PR/communication function. Proceedings. Paper presented at the 7th International Public Relations Research Conference, March; Miami.
  3. Likely, F. (2003). PR/Communication: Key Player in Strategic Management Processes. Strategic Communication Management. 7; 6. October/November.
  4. Likely, F. (2002). What It Takes to be a Communication Strategist: How to Link Communications to Business Strategy. Strategic Communication Management. 6; 3. April/May.