“Intel inside&”? Reinventing our profession … before extinction?

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Emilio Galli Zugaro (disclosure: yet another Italian…although for decades living in Munchen), has been for many years global director of communication of the German based Allianz Group, one of the major global financial organizations (insurance, banking, financial services…) and is a member of the Institute for Public Relations Commission for Global Research.
Related to a recent paper I submitted to the Commission he sent me his comments.
I asked him if he would agree that I partially post these and he readily agreed.
Here they are.

• Social media are able to affect corporations and individuals in a way that was unthinkable before.
Just compare how long it took Bernstein and Woodward from the Washington Post to make Richard Nixon step down (more than two years using one of the world’s most powerful medium) and how long it took the unknown blogger Lane Hudson to make Florida representative Mark Foley resign from the US Congress by posting a blog: five days.

• Everyone (and every corporate) is under constant observation. Corporate behaviours are immediately turned into public perception. The distinction between corporate behaviour and public relations is fading.

Control of newsflows and communication is impossible. The gatekeeper functions in corporations (among them the public relations people) are overwhelmed by the impossibility to mould control.

Globality of business cancels time and space, the world is flat. To be able to keep the dialogue going with stakeholders around the world, 24/7 communications technologies and professionals would be necessary but no big corporation can afford the amount of qualified professionals to manage this global 24/7 dialogue if we imply that this has to occur empathically, according to local languages, habits, cultures (and not using the world’s best known language, which is broken English).

If this is true, we should be honest about the reality of our profession.
Some of our colleagues in their organizations still struggle:

• with recognition of their function in their company
• with reporting lines (many still don’t report to the CEO)
• with budget constraints
• with human resources constraints
• with understanding the changes “out there” and with coping with these changes by adapting structures, processes, skill-sets.

In a nutshell: the world gets more complicated, communication as a dialogue function is increasingly demanding, all stakeholders claim a legitimate interest in a corporate and “pull” what they need, while the communication professional reminds me of the young Dutch boy trying to halt the water bursting through the dam by putting his little fingers in the cracks.

I don’t believe in this uphill battle, I don’t buy Albert Camus when he writes that we have to imagine Sysyphus as a happy man.

I agree with you when you state: “a responsible organization is effective when it achieves the best possible balance […] between the three different levels of interest in any organizational activity:
• The organization’s interest
• The different and often conflicting interests of its stakeholder groups
• The public interest.

The conclusion to me is: the main communication task is not managing the dialogue between such an organization and its stakeholders is the main communications task, but rather shaping this balance between the three interests.

And here we come to the transformation of our profession.
From the old paradigm where an autistic number-cruncher would communicate in Pascal or Cobol and push the punchcard under the door on the other side to: The Communicator, who would translate Cobol into English, Italian, Chinese and into shareholderese, customerese, employeese and societyese….to the new paradigm of abolishing altogether the communication function as a specialist function to let it become an integral part of running every aspect of a business.
Like in “Intel inside”, every employee has to convey –in his or her corporate behaviour – the value proposition of the core brand values.

What are our challenges in the intermediate phase between the old “translator” function and the future of being abolished?
Training managers, training staff, changing recruitment now become areas that increasingly absorb Corporate Communication professionals who strive to have all stakeholders involved in moving forward the brand promise.
Since “control” is virtually impossible in a world shaped by social media, since the bottle-neck function of Corporate Communication to the media is fading and disappearing, the profession has to reinvent itself to an empowering and coaching function, before being able to abolish itself…..

Emilio Galli Zugaro
Munich, March 11th, 2010

Emilio,

thank you first of all for allowing me to post your considerations and I hope to have done no harm in picking out the parts which I considered most relevant.
It is not easy, even in this radically transparent world, to find colleagues of your seniority to be outspoken of their views of the dynamics of our common profession.
Let me provoke you on three items in the hope that our colleagues will want to do the same in order to get a really good conversation going:

1.
you hit the nail when you say that ‘The distinction between corporate behaviour and public relations is fading’.
You will remember the traditional mantra for public relations: ‘do well and let it be known’.
Behind this, which is (of course..) the best possible interpretation of what we have been doing for more than 100 years, are three assumptions:
a) do well;
b) let it be known;
c) do not let it be known when you do not do well.

This has definitely changed as whatever was done badly we used to regularly sweep under the carpet ensuring that even the smallest particles of dust would not reach the public through what were once usually tame media, in order to focus our efforts on pushing, improving, embellishing, interpreting what we believed instead could improve reputation.
Today, organizational behaviour and outright action is relationships with publics while communication is only the tool everyone (not only us, but the guy next door, the angry competitor, the disappointed customer, the enthusiastic employee…) uses to self represent themselves, and their contents are accessible to all.
I used to say once that public relations should be one step ahead of organizational identity but not more than one step.
I am today convinced that we should instead be one step behind, but only one step.
Basically, action and behaviour by the part of an organization in society, with its stakeholder groups implies relationships, i.e. public relations.

2.
You agree with me that ‘achieving a balance between the organization’s interest, the often conflicting stakeholder interests and the public interest is the main communication task rather than that of managing the dialogue between the organization and its stakeholders‘.
This implies a couple of conceptual shifts:
a) that the public relations professional be intellectually and professionally equipped to analyse those various interests and able to interpret them so that the organization’s interest be framed, implemented and pursued in coherence (or not in conflict) with the public interest and also avoid devastating resistance and very costly delays while stimulating support by conflicting stakeholder interests;
b) this implies opening transparent and readily accessible communication channels in which all interested parties express their views. Rather than gatekeepers we become the architects and facilitators of stakeholder and societal dialogue related to the organizations aims as well as specific objectives.

3.
the two points mentioned above appear to me to be in contradiction with your further point (more than a paradigm I would call it a paradox..) where you suggest to ‘abolish communication as a specialist function to let it become an integral part of running every aspect of a business’.
Clearly, if public relations directors in organizations insist on being the bottle neck function of corporate communication to the media, the profession is bound to abolish itself, as you correctly say.
But I do not think this is true any longer and abundant research is available to show this.
Also, I certainly know it is not true in your case as well as many others I am aware of.

One of the things which really drive me nuts as I reach my 50th year of professional activity, is the structural ambiguity of how we are often the first to downplay and undermine the value we bring to the organization and at the same time we are so resistant to change that we remain confined to old, but increasingly uncomfortable roles without realizing that what you indicate as an empowering an coaching function of public relations is a fact of life, has been studied, rationalised, structured and implemented by many, yourself included.
What makes you think that your better colleagues do not do this?

Emilio,
one frustrating experience I encounter when I lecture, consult or simply post on this blog or even speak at an association conference is receiving the vivid impression that the public relations I describe does not reflect reality. Specifically, not so much as to what my interlocutors actually do every day, but what they think their colleagues do every day.

Maybe it would be relevant and important for colleagues like yourself to be more open, to speak out, to describe their activities so that particularly the younger generations may realize that the translator, although maintaining those essential language skills you critically write in your comments, is also a coach, a leader, a role model for the rest of management.

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear Toni,

    thank you for this challenging response. First, let me address the apparent contradiction you mention under item 3.): You phrased it so wonderfully. The right position for a communications professional is one step behind. If this is the case, being a bottleneck is simply impossible! And that’s exactly what I advocate. And I do know that many corporate communicators have understood that we cannot be gatekeepers any longer. There is no polemics against corporate communications from my side, maybe there is a little red flag to those (both in general management as well as in corporate communications) who still live in past times and still believe that could be “in control” of communications.

    But let me come to your second point, which I consider pretty important. I admire your brilliant description of the balance “between the organization’s interest, the often conflicting stakeholder interests and the public interest [being] the main communication task”. I simply postulate that we should strive to make this a task for every employee and manager of a corporation and not only for us communicators.

    Yes, we have to be the architects and facilitators of this dialogue, but we should also empower more and more people in our organizations to join the party and grow themselves into the roles of architects and facilitators. And I’m sure many of us do exactly this.

    And so, no, there is nothing that makes me think that only few of us are engaged in exerting the role of a coach, of a leader, of a trainer. And this is by no way a recent phenomenon, actually I learnt many things from a colleague who has passed away some years ago having reached the venerable age of 85 and who practiced all of this already decades ago.

    As an icon of the public relations profession you are perfectly justified in being angry for what you perceive as a self-deprecating attitude of many. Well, not by me! I just think that some self-irony helps to be taken more seriously by those who are not part of our professional circus.You must admit that we sometimes also encounter some representatives of our profession whose pompousness on the centrality of our category not necessarily helps our standing.

    On a more substantial note, I would concur in your anger and join you in deprecating belittlement of communications. I truly believe that the content of our profession is central for the survival of free market economy and the acceptance of our economic system, especially in times of growing criticism towards business at large. This is why I speak of communications as “Intel inside”, as a discipline that we cannot put aside as a “nice to have”, but as a necessary precodition for having the licence to operate as business entities.

    And let me finish on also agreeing with you on your last item: the necessity by senior professionals to share our daily activities with the younger professionals. You know that I do, you were kind enough to invite me to attend your classes at New York University, I teach at Munich University since 1996 and hold lectures in many more universities and Journalism Schools. Roughly 40% of my working time is devoted to teaching at our corporate university, helping general managers to cope with the balance between the corporate interest and stakeholder interests, as you put it and coaching high potentials to cope with the communication challenges that their career pose. At Allianz we established an assessment and development program called Certified Communicator to make sure that our corporate communications professionals “be intellectually and professionally equipped to analyse those various interests and able to interpret them so that the organization’s interest be framed, implemented and pursued in coherence (or not in conflict) with the public interest and also avoid devastating resistance and very costly delays while stimulating support by conflicting stakeholder interests” as you masterfully phrase it. This is why after years of having neglected to join the debate in the community of communicators I have accepted your invitation a year ago to join the Institute for Public Relations Commission for Global Research, though I felt that I am not intellectually equipped enough to step up to this challenge. And I still do, by the way. But I enjoy being on the receiving end of this, I enjoy learning.

    Toni, I love your passion about our profession, I am passionate about teaching and coaching, I adore to be surprised by the people who work in my company and understand the cause I am fighting for. Like Saadiah, our receptionist in Allianz Malaysia who showed with humility and simplicity that she got the message of “Intel inside”. She asked to get a new job title to better show what her contribution to our reputation is, and she was given it. In front of her at the reception desk, the sign says “Saadiah Zain, Director of First Impressions.” She’s not a corporate communications professional, but what a nice ambassador of our company she is, don’t you think?

    😉 Cheers,

    Emilio

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