From Canada to California: New Directions in Corporate Communication

Article excerpt

In the past five years, communicators have responded to the public relations challenges posed by acquisitions, downsizing, identity and image enhancement, mergers and various other forms of reorganizations and corporate culture shock.

While the Argonauts eventually got their hands on the Golden Fleece, they did so largely because their ship's structure, and jason's managerial and leadership skills, made it possible for everyone on board to have a hand in steering the vessel.

Conversely, many organizational communicators are little more than passengers on modern-day corporate ships, just going along for the ride and not having a say in the direction the company was headed.

Until recently, traditional corporate communication departments lacked the appropriate organizational structure to keep up with the dynamic changes in the corporate arena.

But now, two utilities operating thousands of miles apart, each have developed an organizational strategy that could very well change the face of traditional corporate communication departments.

Account executives join the corporate mix

In an effort to stay ahead of the decision-making curve and to better integrate the role of corporate communication with the overall management function, Southern California Edison, based in Rosemead, and Toronto-based Ontario Hydro recently restructured their respective corporate communication departments.

These reorganizations have both established a single point of contact for company "clients" through an account executive team concept. Communicators now are involved with management teams at the planning stage of a project, rather than in the middle or at the tail end when it's usually too late to fix the problems.

Now, more than ever before, the communicator's role is critical in helping to identify issues and opportunities to help achieve corporate business goals and objectives.

"To be successful communicators, we must position ourselves ahead of the curve," says Lew Phelps, Edison's vice president of corporate communication. "Sound communication skills are necessary, but to do the job right, we must provide more. We must learn the nature of our client organizations so well that we can provide vital business advice to them, as strategic partners." Further, Phelps says, "Outstanding business communication programs can only be built on a foundation of sound business understanding."

This forward-looking strategy, to be successful, must elevate the stature of today's communication profession and demonstrate to management how an empowered corporate communication department can contribute to a company's bottom line.

At the heart of this approach is client-based, management-focused Communication that stresses the importance of formulating comprehensive communication plans to complement a company's business strategy.

For example, Ontario Hydro reorganized its corporate relations function last year to be more responsive to the needs of the utility's individual corporate branches. An organizational effectiveness review indicated that many senior staff throughout the corporation were frustrated by the need to deal with numerous points of contact within the corporate relations branch. Those interviewed said they wanted a high-level, multi-skilled communication generalist to work with them to provide overall corporate relations advice, planning and project management services.

Ontario Hydro's creative operations and communication division responded by appointing seven corporate relations advisors, each with his or her own corporate branches, or accounts, to serve. This one-stop-shop approach provides a single point of contact for managers in a given branch and also:

* helps establish a more rigorous communication planning system,

* establishes a strong team of advocates for Ontario Hydro's corporate position which forms the basis for communication planning in the corporation, and

* improves coordination of the issues management and communication services functions. …