The great communicator Featured

7:00pm EDT October 30, 2005
Effective strategic communication is a critical component for the success of any business. A clearly defined message serves as the backbone of a company’s identity and articulates its future vision.

Edward Clift, an assistant professor of communication at Woodbury University, believes it is a mistake to consider communication as a separate entity that exists apart from the fabric of a company.

“Strategic communication seeks to align an organization’s goals with its communication practices,” he says. “It is about creating a coherent mindset that values differences, handles conflict constructively, operates according to larger ethical principles of community, and minimizes the destructive effects of bias and stereotyping.”

Smart Business spoke to Clift about using strategic communication to motivate employees, the importance of having a clearly defined strategy and some of the dangers of poor communication.

What are some effective methods of communication that can be integrated into a company by the CEO?
Communication, even when it’s not the subject of a CEO’s self-reflection, saturates all organizations — it is what defines corporate identity. Once the CEO starts to self-reflect about communication practices, then corporate communications can become subject to modification and improvement.

I recommend that they start at the top by learning how to listen, for example, before they lead. Concentrating only on the effectiveness of communication, however, will limit the growth of the company. One should focus instead on maximizing the full potential of all interactions so that the company can find ways to direct its own change.

How can effective strategic communication help motivate employees and increase retention?
The idea behind strategic communication is to align corporate interests with the full range of messages distributed to the public, to employees, to the media and others. Employees want to understand how their labor contributes to the success of a company, and this alone will motivate them and increase retention. You can take that one step further as well.

Because of the flattening of management in the corporate world, employees are increasingly responsible for their own oversight. The employees that survive in such a world are those who grasp the strategic mission of the business and make it their own. An effective strategic communication policy will help employees identify and understand the vision of the company.

How can a CEO or business owner be sure that employees are satisfied with the company’s communication program?
People are satisfied when they feel like they’ve contributed to the environment that they work in, which includes the communication environment. You want to build an organization that is open to the input of all the employees. This can be designed into the corporate communication policy, but it has to begin with the recognition that people are sometimes scared of their own ability to influence the world.

You not only need to create the avenues, but also find ways to encourage participation in those communication practices. Concrete ways to measure how satisfied employees are would include feedback forums, participant observation, anonymous surveys and quality control indicators.

Why is it important that senior management has a clearly defined communication strategy?
No company can compete in the Information Age unless it reflects upon its own communication practices. If you develop a well-defined communication strategy, you can link your corporate goals to your way of knowing and interacting with the world as a business.

The relative success of one business over another is in large part attributable to the communication strategies they choose to implement. This is why many investment professionals choose to buy the management team of a company rather than the product; they want to know that the communication strategy internal to the corporation is aligned with their business goals.

What are the dangers of poor communication in business?
Primarily that you risk appearing crazy when your actions and your words do not coincide. The goal of a CEO is to create a coherent vision of a company that articulates a mission that matches what it is doing. Otherwise you say one thing while doing another and people don’t have trust in you.

This is one reason why many corporate reorganizations and mergers fail: you can’t just make a structural change and expect the communication practices to also change.

The dangers of poor communication do not end at the door of the company. Huge external risks face all organizations, but especially those operating on a global stage. These include natural disasters, forced changes in ownership or management, powerful stakeholders, ideological challenges and direct attack.

Strategic communication dictates that any business become conscious of these potential perturbations to its viability. It should then use its observations to strategically design a robust set of internal and external communication practices.

What is a common communication mistake that business owners make?
Business owners tend to become overly reliant on technology to solve their communication problems. They make the mistake of trying to improve communication in an impersonal manner.

Communication thrives on feedback, collaborative meanings and close personal engagement. The challenge is to balance technology with an appreciation for everybody’s unique insights — whether they’re workers inside the company or customers outside the company.

Edward Clift is an assistant professor of communication at Woodbury University. Reach him at (818) 252-5197 or through the university’s Web site, www.woodbury.edu.