Friday, August 23, 2013

Poor internal communications is the bane of the P.R. profession

At a public relations conference, a senior professor commented that public relations is yet to be seen as a management function. Some key requirements from a management function are multi-disciplinary expertise, leadership capabilities, collaboration with other functions and the ability to make a measurable impact on various organizational goals.  Advertising professionals failed to show these capabilities and therefore, could not gain a seat within the management team of clients. 

On the other hand, one can clearly see some serious rethink on the role of public relations in the overall communication matrix within organizations. As public relations evolves into a multi-disciplinary profession that has direct engagement with multiple stakeholders be it consumers or with the company boards, there has been a perception shift where in-house public relations professionals are being recognized for making an impact on business as well as exhibiting leadership abilities. As a result, increasingly, companies are delinking in-house P.R. teams from marketing teams and assigning clear goals and targets that are tied to organizational goals. This signifies that the discipline is required to collaborate well with other functions to deliver the desired results.

In-house P.R. teams rely heavily on P.R. agency teams to deliver results. This in-turn broadens the role of P.R. agency teams. They are expected to advise clients on every possible means and channel of communication, be it internal or external. So understandably, P.R. agency professionals are assumed to have the requisite system and structure in place that helps integrate their own teams and align them to client’s structure and goals. Surprisingly, that’s where many P.R. teams exhibit glaring gaps. 

I have seen many P.R. agency teams failing to deliver owing to ineffective internal collaboration within the team especially when team members are spread across various locations, work on different client campaigns and/or belong to various practice areas (digital, public affairs). The fact is that P.R. agency teams are still coming to terms with a matrix structure of client servicing. While I don’t mean to say that in-house corporate communications teams have mastered the art of collaboration, I would like to keep that aspect aside since it is highly dependent on the size and nature of business of the client organization. P.R. agencies tend to have similar structures.

So let’s try to understand some concerns and misconceptions that hinder effective collaboration within P.R. teams.

  • I can’t perform in a matrix structure. Yes, the statement sounds familiar. When each horse is out to prove that he’s better than the rest of his fellows pulling the same cart, it is a fiasco in the making. Of course individual performance matters and there can be ample scope to show it even in a matrix structure, but if one believes that by working in isolation one can outshine the rest, the person is grossly mistaken. A team member is better off working in sync than trying to stick one’s neck out.      
  • If I’m the best individual performer, I’m most eligible to lead the team. Not necessarily. Leadership is not about doing the best work yourself, but about helping others (which includes peers, subordinates and even seniors) to put in their best and achieve a common goal. I have come across people at various levels who believe that by not sharing their knowledge and skills with others, they maintain their prominence in the team. What they fail to realize is that most team members can see this shortsighted behavior and tend to resent it. Such persons end up losing the team’s trust and even if they do eventually manage to become team leads, they achieve very little. After all, how much can a team lead accomplish if he/she isn’t trusted by fellow team members?
  • My opinion isn’t sought prior to important decisions. Addressing this concern of team members, in no uncertain terms, is the job of the team lead/s. They must ensure that important decisions are taken through consensus. The practice of taking key decisions in isolation can play havoc with team morale. In addition, the consensus-building process helps neutralize vested interests in the team who believe they have the authority to take a decision owing to their seniority or longevity in the team. This is, by far, the biggest test for the team lead.
  • Why should I be sharing most of the information when others don’t? Well, if a person is more resourceful and the team looks up to him/her for information, isn’t that a strength that can work in the person's favour? No-one stands to lose by sharing more.
  • I’ve shared knowledge but never got enough credit. That’s the pet peeve for most. From experience, I can say that credit is one of those things which the more one gives away, the more one gets. While it is definitely the role of the team lead/s to try to ensure that due credit (and I use the word ‘due’ since the degree is highly subjective) is passed on to each member of the team, the best results are achieved when every team member feels the need to acknowledge each other’s contribution. The more one tries to keep credit to oneself, the lesser credit he/she gets from the rest of the team.     
  • The client can’t see who’s doing what internally so how does it matter. You bet the client can. Teamwork and team chemistry are evident during client meetings and even on calls. In fact, I’ve had clients who would discuss individual strengths and weaknesses of team members with me and would oppose important work being given to a team member who they believed did not share a good rapport with others. Nothing could be more telling of a P.R. team’s inadequate internal communication than when various campaign teams sitting at a client meeting are clueless about the other campaign’s key initiatives and stare at each other when asked by a client how one campaign can leverage the initiatives of the other. While it reflects poorly on the team members, and particularly on the team lead, above all it damages the credibility of the firm.

Time and again, there have been several instances to prove that teams which collaborate effectively deliver far better results and exhibit a greater degree of confidence and bonding. Even situations of immense work pressure and uncertainties can be managed. On the other hand, teams that share little with each other in a misplaced notion of guarding their turf, deliver far below their potential. The result is often, frustration and attrition.  Putting in place a matrix reporting structure or providing the teams with tools to collaborate does not guarantee that they would do so. The crux is demonstrating the intent to collaborate which needs to percolate from the top, down to each and every layer of the team.  If P.R. practitioners want the profession to be viewed as a management function, they must behave in a manner that is commensurate to management practices such as effective internal collaboration.