How to create better communication value for business units

Organizational communication has two broad roles – to support corporate strategies and to support business unit strategies. Communicators are generally located within head office where most senior management is located, and therefore communicators tend to give more attention to corporate influences. But the bulk of revenue is generated by the business or operating units. Therefore, it is important for you to know how to create better communication value for business units.

These units are in the frontline where the customers are, but unfortunately some operational managers hardly ever get a visit from communicators. Obviously the impact of the COVID pandemic makes it more difficult to visit  business sites, but when you can, make it a priority – and you can arrange virtual meetings after that if lockdowns are in place. Apart from other factors, communicators may think they are busy enough as it is, without volunteering more work with the business units. As a result, business unit managers don’t understand the extent of the communication role. In fact, many think communication is an optional head office indulgence. This view tends to be consistent among managers at the ‘sharp end’ of your organization’s operations whether you are in the private sector or in government. It is a “soft skill.”

The negative view is supported by surveys that show that more than half of head office support functions don’t align with their organization’s business unit strategies.

Create better communication value for business units

Focus more on operational areas. You need to focus more on satisfying operational managers in the business units. You need to show how you can help them produce better results by using your communication services. But I would advise not to get drawn into providing comms services on an hourly rate. During my consulting days, I did some work for a massive mining company that based work from internal units on a fee-per-hour basis – and it didn’t work very well. The business units were quite reluctant to part with money from their budget on this basis, and the internal comms chargeable role was fairly easy to reduce or delete because the business unit decision-makers didn’t relate to a soft-skill area like comms. Also, the comms staff didn’t include enough evidence of the value of their role in producing tangible business benefits, ie in dollars or decisions by stakeholders.

Therefore, the best way to add value to business units, your internal customers, is to align with their business plans.

Your communication department, like any support unit, has a role to help corporate and business units generate revenue and make profits. One way of looking at the role of your communication department is to think of it as a ‘business within a business,’ which has the mission of creating stakeholder value.

You can add value to business units by treating them as your customers whereby you establish effective relationship management with them in the same way as successful professional service firms do. You should establish an internal communication consulting process, designating relationship managers, doing integrated planning, using service agreements and conducting customer reviews.

In this way you will align your support service to the priorities of the business units. But ensure you demonstrate frequently their ROI from the service. In this way, you will underline how better communication value is achieved for business units

Effective alignment should be actively managed as an ongoing partnership process with business units in the following ways:

1. Develop your business unit relationships

The first step in improving your support to a business unit is to decide which unit/s are likely to cooperate with your intentions. Invariably you will find some business unit heads will be skeptical that communication can achieve much, and that your efforts would waste their time. Also, the managers and supervisors who report to the head of a business unit are even less likely to be aware of the potential value of communication support, so where you can, include them in applicable meetings with the head of their business unit. This will help to put them all on the same wavelength. By dealing with the unit heads and their direct reports you are most likely to get a positive response from them, and you can use your project with them as an example or case study when approaching other heads of business units.

Internal communication consulting

You can seek to initiate internal communication consulting activities with the responsive business units. The type of consulting can be conducted in four different ways in which you can make progress with the most productive alternatives to:

  1. recommend communication activities and techniques
  2. provide and support communication competencies, structures, and processes for nominated individuals within the unit
  3. integrate communication insights into unit decision making
  4. build and encourage awareness of the communication components of any management activities or decisions.

You can assign a staff member to lead and manage the relationship with your internal customer or client (whichever term you prefer). Simply delegate a staff member as an ‘account manager’ to manage the day-to-day contact and implementation of activities in support of a business unit. By allocating accountability in this way, you ensure that your staff member is more responsive to the needs of the business unit and is in touch with them more often than previously. Ensure that the account manager visits the business unit to see it in action, learn their jargon and how the unit functions, and ensure they develop a good understanding the unit’s internal and external operating environment. All too often, business unit managers criticize communicators for not making the effort to understand their business. This is one way to turn the situation around.

Your role as a function manager could be to represent your area in planning and review meetings with the business unit head, accompanied by your client account manager. If you don’t have staff, or if they aren’t sufficiently experienced, then act as an account manager yourself. Communication roles are labor-intensive, so you would need to carefully assess the amount of time needed for this against the likely available time you and your staff member would have to generate better communication value for business units.

2. Treat the business unit head as a key internal stakeholder

It is highly advisable for you to establish a formal or informal internal stakeholder relations program with the manager of the business unit with whom you want to establish a working relationship to ensure they understand and support the communication role and to enhance your personal relationship with them. (Sometimes if the executive in question is not very receptive to an overt program of activities, it may be better to proceed with such activities discreetly so a relationship is developed subtly over time, eg. giving them advance briefing on forthcoming issues, making sure they are invited to hospitality events, corporate announcements, product launches and so on.)

The program might firstly involve some research to determine the background and interests of the business unit head to help to understand them better. Planning and progress meeting with them could also include a component to create personal support for the manager. The program could be used to:

  • arrange media and presentation skills coaching
  • organize professional-standard photographs of them for use in promotional material
  • manage the development of short video clips of them and their business unit for potential use in the organizational website, in marketing communication and social media
  • develop business unit subsidiary messages to the main corporate messages
  • organize attendance at professional development briefings, eg. on stakeholder relations management or issues management, so the manager understands the impact of communication matters on their operations
  • set up networking opportunities
  • arrange for them to host relevant stakeholders at the corporate box at sporting and cultural events
  • obtain publicity for them in professional publications
  • contribute or ‘ghost-write’ articles in their name in professional association publications
  • ensure the references to them and their business unit in the organization’s website are well-written
  • develop positive mentions of them in internal and external social media.

One way to improve the relationship with senior corporate and operational management is to hold cross-functional, facilitated workshops on issue management to bring managers to a deeper understanding of the strategic potential of formal communication.

Arrange a communication audit of the manager’s business unit to assess the effectiveness of communication and identify the ways in which their area would benefit from professional support.

It would also help to conduct workshops to identify key stakeholder groups for the manager and their business unit, and then conduct audits of those stakeholders’ communication needs to help the manager better understand the potential impact of those stakeholders on their unit’s operations. These actions would clearly indicate improved communication value for business units

3. Find out business unit plans

One of your first actions in preparing your annual communication plan should be to obtain a copy of the strategic plan of each business unit to identify and note business unit matters in which you think communication could significantly assist. (More detail on how to do this is contained in my Kindle books, Annual communication plans: How to get the results you want!, and Communication Campaign Plans: How to write a winning communication campaign plan.)

Listen well

Genuinely listening to stakeholders is more crucial than ever. One of the key things to do in all of this is to listen carefully to the business unit head and their direct reports when you interact with them. In developing a productive relationship with them, you need to find out what their priorities are, and their attitudes to important aspects of their function. Listen carefully, make notes from meetings and from reading their business plans so you can ask intelligent questions to clarify their attitudes and priorities. Their time is important, so don’t ask questions with obvious answers that can be found on their website or from their business plan, if you have access to it beforehand. Mirroring the body language of the business unit head, or their direct report if you are meeting with them, builds good rapport. This works even in virtual meetings. Similarly with the language and terms you use. Just by the use of better non-verbal communication you create extra perceived value for business units.

Ask these core questions to quickly understand their business

Core questions to ask if you don’t know the answers already:

  1. What is your business unit’s core role? How and to what extent does it contribute to organizational success?
  2. What makes your products or services unique and successful? (You would ask a government department or branch head what key measures show their output is important to the public.)
  3. What are your product/s or service/s?
  4. What are their key features and what is unique or special about them?
  5. What are the benefits and added value of your product/s and/or service/s?
  6. How do your products or services satisfy your customer’s or clients’ needs?
  7. What factors have led to the sales growth or demand for your business unit’s products or services?
  8. Who are your current and potential customers or clients?
  9. Your target market – what is the current and potential size, and what is the overall market trend and the trend for your specific products or services?
  10. Who are your main competitors?
  11. What are their main strengths and weaknesses?
  12. Who are their main customers and why?
  13. How is your business different from or better than your competitors?
  14. How do your prices compare?
  15. How do you attract customers/clients? And how will you expand your market base?
  16. How do you promote sales?
  17. Do you have any marketing images, eg photos and videos that can be used in communication activities?
  18. How do you retain your customers/clients, eg product promotions, great service, customer loyalty programs?
  19. Do you have any well-known or celebrity users for your products?
  20. What marketing and promotional activities do you have in place, including genuine customer testimonials and customer photos?

Also, find recent examples and case studies of organizations in your business or government sector that provide proof of better operational results achieved with better communication. Mention some of these in meetings and you can even send brief outlines of these success stories to the operational heads you intend to deal with. Also, consider ways in which you can subtly refer to some of these success stories in your communication activities including the organizational newsletter. Always take a brief summary of these success stories with you, in digital form on your laptop and/or included among the papers you table in such meetings. These examples will greatly strengthen your case. If you can’t find worthwhile examples in the PR literature, meet with your peers in firms you know have implemented these types of activities (not necessarily in your sector, but close enough to be relevant), and see if they would be prepared for you to take notes based on the conversation.

4. Discuss and follow up business unit priorities

Armed with this knowledge, talk with each business unit head about their priorities – the main internal and external issues they believe they will face in the coming year. Cross-check their feedback against their documented plan. (If a plan isn’t available, you will need to rely on the information you learn from your discussion with the business unit head.)

You need to talk about the operational matters that are important to them rather than talking to them about communication topics. Most of them aren’t interested in communication per se; their priority is to address their operational issues. You should therefore talk with them in their terms, using their terminology and making notes. You might have instant solutions, but you are advised to go away and think through any communication solutions you might offer, consulting colleagues for their ideas as part of the process. Don’t feel obliged to produce instant solutions in the meeting; you may say that you would like to think about how you can help and that you will get back to them with a plan. With time for strategic thought and even consultation with others, you are more likely to create extra communication value for business units.

By investing the time with each operational manager, you will know exactly what their concerns are. The communication strategy you propose to deal with each of those issues can be costed and put to the respective operational manager as part of their budget for dealing with the issue.

5. Seek to get operational managers to pay for their communication costs

As your resources of funding and labor will always be limited, you can put the onus on the operational manager to pay for the communication costs to be incurred. For example, you may propose for the business unit head to make a presentation at a special stakeholders’ or community function, or organize a media conference for the official launch of a new product. (If there is minimal cost, you don’t have to worry about budget issues.) If they can’t afford all the activities you propose for them, then get them to prioritize what they can afford. In this way, the cost is borne from their operational budgets rather than your corporate budget. And in this way, you will train them to start thinking of communication as an integral part of their operational planning.

When the communication strategy has been agreed for each operational area, you can arrange to communicate to employees within that business unit about the planned activities. Ideally, you may even be able to consult them for their ideas; if they have input into the strategies, they are more likely to support them.

6. Write a ‘service agreement’ with each business unit

When you have reached agreement on the projects you will implement for each business unit, you can review the staff resources from your department that will be necessary to service the projects. If you have sufficient staff resources, write a service agreement with the respective manager for providing this support service to them, with objectives and measurement factors built in to make you accountable for the delivery of results you have agreed you can achieve. You needn’t necessarily call the document a service agreement (I personally don’t like the term); you can call it anything you like including “Communication plan [or strategy] for XY business unit.” If you don’t have the staff time to service the agreement, consider outsourcing the work to a consultancy, again at the expense of the operating unit.

7. Review progress and obtain internal client feedback

You should review progress on your program for individual business units on a monthly basis and should conduct detailed reviews and planning with them at least quarterly. The monthly meetings provide an opportunity to share viewpoints on progress and to fine-tune planning of forthcoming components of projects.

8. Report on benefits gained against costs (ROI)

Meet with your staff to plan ways you could set measurable objectives and results for this type of commitment. Nearly all of your objectives will be internal in this role, and should include a mix of qualitative and quantitative measures. My articles on how to measure your communication gaps and how to measure your PR team’s performance could be useful in planning appropriate objectives and results measures.

You must ensure the services you provide meet the objectives mutually agreed with the business units you are servicing. This goes beyond simply showing that the activities were delivered within specifications. You should go the extra step in agreeing to share some responsibility for results with the operational manager, even if communication is just one part of the overall project. Management advisers generally recommend that when designing their bonus system, organizations should base half of the bonus of support unit staff on the results achieved by the businesses they serve. This keeps everyone focused on success.

When support units like communication are aligned with the business units as well as the corporate priorities, you are likely to produce better results than otherwise. However, most organizations don’t create such alignments. The onus is therefore on you to take the initiative in serving operational business units.

The strategy in this article fits with the approach in a communication scorecard, and therefore will serve you well if your department or organization introduce a Balanced Scorecard method of running the business.

Further reading

My ebooks on developing successful communication plans offer you a generous number of helpful, practical insights. Tremendous value – just like having your own comms coach right at your side!

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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