From Canada to California: New Directions in Corporate Communication

By Lennon, Kevin; Sheldon, Keith A. | Communication World, January 1992 | Go to article overview

From Canada to California: New Directions in Corporate Communication

Lennon, Kevin, Sheldon, Keith A., Communication World

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.

Function-specific corporate communication (Fig. 1) places an unintentionally heavy burden on someone who usually has a very narrow perspective on communication.

One-stop-shop approach serves all

For instance, let's assume the manager of human resources needs to improve the department's image. A common answer to such a problem is "Let's start a newsletter." All too often, the responsive communicator would say, "When do you want it?" The more appropriate response should be "Why do you want it?" Further, it is not uncommon for such factors as target audience, secondary audiences, key messages, secondary messages, goals and objectives to be completely overlooked.

Client-specific communication (Figs. 2A and 2B) places the emphasis on communication strategy. It is up to the communicator to work closely with the client and examine the communication and management needs before making any recommendations in terms of strategies and tactics.

This one-stop-shop approach not only provides a single point of contact for managers who need to communicate about their business, but also:

* provides the opportunity for communication planning,

* improves employee communication,

* improves customer communication,

* helps establish message cohesiveness,

* facilitates graphic uniformity and "family resemblance" for company publications,

* positions the communication process as a management function that supports corporate goals and objectives, and

* helps to establish and cultivate what futurist Faith Popcorn terms the "corporate soul" through strategic communication.

The key to restructuring a corporate communication department is upper management support. In the case of Ontario Hydro, the corporation's vice presidents agreed to the concept and were involved in the final assignment of advisors to their respective branches. As a result of upper management's commitment and support, the new process was more easily adopted.

More recently, Southern California Edison implemented a similar reorganization, partly as a result of recommendations made in a communication audit performed by the Los Angeles office of the public relations finn Fleishman-Hillard.

The communication audit identified areas where the utility's 60-member corporate communication staff could be consolidated and streamlined to make it more responsive to Edison's 16,000 employees and 4 million customers.

At the core of both reorganizations is the account executive concept. Edison's eight account executives and Ontario Hydro's seven corporate relations advisors share the same communication vision, yet go about it in slightly different ways.

To illustrate, at Ontario Hydro the advisors focus their efforts on providing strategic advice, communication planning and project management services. The bulk of the writing and almost all creative and production work is delegated to freelance writers and suppliers. At Edison, a "writers pool" was established from existing staff members to handle the majority of speech writing, as well as various other writing tasks.

However, a good portion of the creative writing, as well as project management and strategic advice activities, is done by the account executives. As the work load increases, freelance writers are expected to play a larger role in the communication resource mix.

"Although there are some obvious hurdles with respect to finding and cultivating a reliable pool of freelance creative staffers, the flexibility and versatility provided by external resources ensures we get the best possible talent for a given project," says Susan Jones, Ontario Hydro's director of creative operations and communication.

Resistance to change not easy to overcome

As with any reorganization, resistance to change is always a concern. Corporate cultures are not formed (and certainly don't change) overnight. The transition from being turf-oriented to task-oriented is not always easy.

Both companies experienced their fair share of growing pains. But, as Phelps noted, "We asked two of Ontario Hydro's corporate relations advisors to address an all-hands meeting of our corporate communication department. It was an excellent opportunity to share areas of concern and exchange strategies to help make the transition from a typical organization to one that reflects progressive thinking and functional integrity."

The one common denominator that permeates the restructure of both utilities is the presence of a more structured relationship between management and business communicators. Each company has developed a communication project contracting process that clients must complete before any project can be started.

This contract serves as an informal, yet compelling agreement between a client and the account executive or corporate relations advisor about how business objectives will be supported with communications.

Additionally, candid discussions focus on such critical issues as identifying key messages and asking as many questions as possible. Is there a call to action? What is the purpose of the project? Are there any budgetary constraints? How will the communication be evaluated?

In addition, Edison and Ontario Hydro each have developed project tracking methodologies that allow department employees and management to keep track of projects and their status.

Without a doubt, business is becoming more complex. As a result, the communicator's role will continue to increase in importance. Moreover, organizational communicators will be required to adjust their thinking and the way they look at the corporate world.

Is the account executive system practical for all companies with a corporate communication function? Certainly not. From one perspective, such a system is probably more appropriate for larger communication organizations with sufficient staff to accommodate function specialization.

As with any management strategy that involves restructuring, appropriate formal research is essential. However, once the decision to reorganize has been made, upper management commitment and support is vital.

It is premature to evaluate the lasting value of a client-driven structure, but the early successes experienced by Ontario Hydro and Southern California Edison have not escaped the attention of other companies.

No fewer than five companies in the U.S. are either implementing or researching an account executive system for use in their respective corporate communication departments. In their search for excellence, organizational communicators are expanding their thinking and helping to shape the direction and destiny of the communication profession.

Eventually, Jason did grasp the Golden Fleece, but not before plowing a field with fire-breathing bulls and sowing it with dragons' teeth. He was successful because he executed an effective action plan, persevered despite formidable challenges and made optimum use of his resources.

Similarly, organizational communicators and management teams will have to plow their respective corporate fields with vision and sow it with teamwork and performance to grasp the Golden Fleece of credibility in an incredible world.

Kevin Lennon is a corporate relations advisor at Ontario Hydro. Keith A. Sheldon, ABC, APR, is an account executive at Southern California Edison.


Public relations practitioners should not ask permission to do what they know is right; they should simply teff people what they plan, then do it.

That, said Ed Block at the San Francisco Academy's senior public relations officer development program, is the way to succeed in the PR function and to win respect. If members of management want to object or to make suggestions, they can, but the accountability stays with the PR executive.

"Put simply." said Block, "It's the courage to take action when action is required." Block, who formerly headed PR for AT&T and who is now president of the Block, MacDonald Group, Inc., told attenders of the academy that CEOs are decision-makers but they don't like to make decisions or initiate actions that they think they're paying the PR department to handle.

They can get very short. tempered when issues are brought to them that ought to have been reconciled at lower levels."

Block said the PR officer must do the necessary staff work to be sure of what they're proposing. "CEOs don't take kindly to being the backstop that prevents bad ideas from getting outside the main gate." With others in management, there is a different reason for taking the initiative on PR actions, he said.

The managers and executives whose functions we support are conditioned to be risk averse. They like certainty. They are not much inclined to leave their fingerprints on anything novel for which they can be blamed or second-guessed." The trick, he said: Take them off the hook- Don't ask permission. Teff them what you intend to do. You'll be surprised how many times you get no resistance at all."

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

From Canada to California: New Directions in Corporate Communication


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.