Talking points Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Amachine run amok injures one of your employees. Dozens of newspaper and television reporters immediately descend on your company headquarters, looking for blood. What can you say or do that will minimize the impact of that unfortunate accident, while portraying your company as the compassionate company it is? Do words matter at a time like this? You bet they do — and they should begin with a competent communications department.

“Crisis communications are important to most businesses,” says Greg Blase, director of academic programming at Kent State University. “If something happens — a plant accident, an employee injured — there’s a need for communication, right away.”

Most companies work hard to ensure that their integrity, credibility and reputation are protected. When a crisis strikes, they can issue statements, provide updates through the Internet, hold media briefings or even issue statements through webcasts. All require professional communicators who possess a strategic mindset along with accomplished writing and presentation skills.

Besides being adequately prepared to handle a crisis, strong communicators are more important now than ever in business, especially since current and future technologies demand strong communication skills.

Smart Business talked with Blase about the benefits of good communications.

Why are communications so vital to a company’s success?

With the high-paced technical life we lead, there will always be a strong need for communications. It is both a learned and an acquired skill. A large company needs to communicate with a variety of different contingencies — customers, stockholders, donors, employees, local government and sometimes even state government. It communicates to those audiences through news releases, public relations, advertising, employee newsletters or videos, special events and more. Typically, the person who must communicate business ideals, strategies and goals will be more of a business professional. A savvy CEO will realize that his or her expertise is in running the company, building the business and seeking out new markets. But he or she must also realize that woven into that entire strategy is the need for good communications. A smart company will use its communications department to take information and craft each message to the particular market for which it’s intended. For instance, everybody talks about technology today, but even if you possess this wonderful new technology, you’ve still got to let people know about it. Because we see so many people in high positions who don’t know how to communicate well, I would counsel upper managers to rely on their communications department. Find the right people for it, staff it intelligently, and use those people as a management resource so that when anything occurs that requires communication, trained and educated professionals can respond appropriately.

What about communications that don’t involve a crisis?

The CEO of a company doesn’t need to be a master linguist, but he or she needs to convey the right message clearly so it’s not taken the wrong way and so that the audience understands not only the words but the intent. That’s where strong communication comes in. Companies that want to create an identity for themselves have to wave the flag when they develop a new product, get a new client or hire a new person. All of that information has to be assembled and disseminated through the right channels — employees, customers, the media — by a strong communications department.

Should corporate leaders take a communications course at a local college or university?

It really depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual leader. Executives weak at interpersonal communication and/or public speaking could most likely benefit from these types of courses. But the key is knowing your weaknesses. I suspect many leaders and managers don’t know they are weak in these areas or won’t admit it to themselves or anyone else. A lot of bright people are not good communicators.

Why the current emphasis on applied communications at regional college campuses?

Ohio is dealing with brain drain. Because universities are tax-supported, it behooves the state to try to keep its students in Ohio after they graduate. The thinking is that regional campus students are more place-bound, somewhat nontraditional and a little bit older. They attend a regional campus because they want to stay where they are. That, in part, is why many universities are expanding their curriculum to regional campuses. The governor has stated that he wants everybody in Ohio to be able to get a degree within 30 miles of his or her house. That’s a difficult promise. Having a four-year degree such as applied communications at a regional campus allows someone to study communications in more depth, closer to home. An applied communications graduate has basic skills in communication. The program offers courses in organizational communication, high-impact speaking, interpersonal communication, gender communication, writing and design, so it’s an all-encompassing package. It is not as in-depth as the advertising, journalism or public relations degree programs, but sometimes, companies need people with a broader education.

GREG BLASE is director of academic programming at Kent State University. Reach him at (330) 672-8290 or gblase@kent.edu.