Pull Up a Chair: Communications’ Seat at the Table

February 2022
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As someone who committed to a career in communications over 20 years ago, I’ll be the first to advocate for the power of a good story. In fact, storytelling has become so central to our profession that it’s a bit of a buzzword these days. 

Many folks believe storytelling to be the secret sauce for effective communications, the mark of an expert. And it’s true: The ability to tell a compelling story is undeniably important. 

Capable writing is a prerequisite for communicators, and engaging storytellers are coveted. However (and stay with me for a moment), storytelling will only take you so far. Business leaders speak in terms of results, so confident leadership, influence, strategy and outcome-oriented thinking are just as crucial. 

These characteristics — along with the ability to quantify meaningful results — help communicators secure a seat at the table, which is the single greatest contributor to effective communications departments. 

Quantifying success by choosing appropriate measures

The downfall of communications and public relations is reporting analytics without contextualizing them into true insights — or worse, neglecting to measure outcomes at all. Doing this perpetuates the mistaken perception that communications departments are a cost center to a business rather than a revenue generator. 

But folks who can weave together tangible results as the foundation for a communications strategy hold the true key to success. Leaning into the ability to tell a good story and paint a picture of results is a great way to do it. 

To position communications as a valuable resource to senior leadership, communicators must consistently measure results beyond just email open rates and intranet article page views. Instead, think in terms of broader organizational goals and consider how strategy and storytelling can impact the business by:

  • Increasing engagement scores, which can be tied to retention, speed and delivery
  • Reducing turnover, which in turn results in cost savings
  • Improving organizational effectiveness and productivity

Now, let me pause for a moment and say: Communications alone cannot solve noncommunications problems. So, in the same way it’s important to demonstrate how communications drive business results, it’s also necessary to illuminate the management decisions and actions that will enable (or impede) success. 

Pulling up your chair

I know some talented communicators who can take a decision passed down from company leadership and convey even the most challenging information with great tact. But the instances in which I have witnessed true, lasting results at the hand of communications are those where a communicator had a seat at the table. 

Here’s why: The perspectives offered by communicators are often different than those represented by other leaders. When consideration is given to varying perspectives, leaders can avoid setbacks they may not have otherwise anticipated. 

Plus, communicators who have a hand in the decision-making process can more adeptly cascade the information by proactively addressing questions and framing announcements appropriately based on more complete context. 

I have spent my career advising young leaders and communicators on how to pull up a chair. The first step is gaining trust and reinforcing value. This requires understanding the entire business — not just the pieces that affect communications. Nothing takes place in a vacuum, so being intentional about collecting context and perspective to inform your conversations with senior leaders can equip you to capitalize on an opportunity to make an insightful and data-driven recommendation.

Additionally, don’t be shy about touting your successes. It comes more naturally to some than others, but you have to advocate for yourself, your team and your work. Become an expert at telling your own story. 

Be intentional about tying communications initiatives to larger company successes by using some of the measures we’ve already discussed. In fact, when done well, you can convey an even broader business case for the communications function as a whole. 

Putting results into action

So what does all of this look like in action? How do you get started? 

First, take a look at the company’s short-term and long-term goals. What’s most important to leadership? Is it hitting sales targets? Meeting aggressive delivery goals? Fostering a strong and healthy culture? Becoming number one in customer service? Pick a priority and pull your team together. 

Then ask: What are the obstacles in the way of meeting that goal? How could communications help address some of the challenges? You don’t have to boil the ocean. Instead, pick a very specific way to contribute. Make sure that you know how to measure your contribution and proactively bring your ideas to leadership. 

Doing that on a regular basis will shift the perception of communications (and communicators) within your company. Instead of being perceived as highly valued order-takers and executors, communicators become seen as valuable strategic counsel and problem-solvers.

I’ve managed corporate communications for global companies. I’ve navigated change alongside clients across industries and coached executives through organization-shaking challenges. Each situation has had one thing in common: When communicators have a hand in steering the ship, organizations more effectively weather the storms.

The key is to identify appropriate and achievable measures by which to indicate results, and then influence executives to gain buy-in and establish accountability based on those measures.

If you can do that and tell a good story, then the sky’s the limit. 

Return to Current Issue The Annual Writing Issue | February 2022
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