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Mind the (Comms) gap

Many New Zealand organisations are launching significant change programmes, transformations, or new operating models. These initiatives are intended to deliver benefits to customers and organisations, so they involve all parts of a business, and a wide range of stakeholders.

Why then does mentioning ‘transformation’ or ‘operating model’ often elicit groans of despair from communications professionals?

Programmes of these magnitude and importance should be some of the most exciting, challenging and significant pieces of work PR people work on.

Change programmes call on all disciplines within the field; internal communications, stakeholder management, media communications, government relations, investor relations, design, social media, risk management, strategy development, and implementation.

Effective communication is critical to the success of these programmes. You have the opportunity to make a difference, and the expectation that you will do so.

Despite this, getting communications teams involved can be challenging.

Sometimes communications staff don’t want to work on a programme, or help it communicate about its work. At other times, communications and programme teams work at cross purposes. At worst, they actively work against each other.

Often these differences play out in an all too obvious way, creating distrust, confusion and a lack of communication about what is really important.

It reflects a gap between communications and programme people – a gap partly explained by different backgrounds and roles.

Communications people are often big picture thinkers, interested in concepts, symbolism, and creativity. They tend to think more about external audiences – customers, owners, media. Often they know ‘a little bit about a lot’, but aren’t immersed in detail.

In contrast, programme staff are often about the fine detail, process, and the nuts and bolts of an organisation, as well as strategy. They are often focused on internal stakeholders. And quite often they work at a very ‘deep’ level across a narrow range of activities – but don’t have a sense of the wider picture.

New and experienced communications professionals can sometimes struggle to cope with the transition to working in a programme. That’s not meant as a judgment – the culture of change programmes isn’t necessarily an ideal one. But ‘fit’ is a factor that needs to be considered.

These different ways of thinking about an organisation’s purpose, make up and work should be complementary, rather than in opposition. Bringing them together is important to ensure change programmes are successful.

What makes the difference is having a team that can work across the organisation and its stakeholders, a team that understands the different people and audiences involved, their strengths (and weaknesses) and that can translate and negotiate between different perspectives.

Organisations should build communications teams that champion strategy and keeps the threads together.

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