Just talking about office politics leaves an unpleasant taste in some peoples’ mouths, which may explain why many are slow to learn that corporate communicators must have political influence to protect and strengthen corporate reputations. In some of the most highly visible instances where companies have failed to do the right thing, the explanation is not that the in-house communicators didn’t offer the right counsel; it’s that they lost the internal debate over the correct course of action. Sometimes it was a simple matter of insufficient political muscle.
When the key decisions are made that have great consequences for corporate brands and reputations, the outcome is rarely determined by a single set of facts. Rather, it is the result of a handful of top executives debating how to resolve a complex problem. The political relationships among the key players – let’s call it office politics – often determines which position prevails.
Political influence is especially crucial for corporate staff functions that enter a debate with the disadvantage of not contributing to a company’s revenues. The power relationship with “money making” parts of the business is something like a child trying to influence a working parent about a major household expenditure. It’s a tough climb.
Office politics can be played cleanly, expertly and for the good of the company when the objective is to achieve the best corporate reputation, not to get a bigger title or to move into a larger office. “Politics” is nothing more than the sorting out that happens naturally whenever you gather people and ask them to do some task over time. Kids on sports teams (and their parents) will try to influence the coach. Observe any classroom for a day and you will be able to identify the alpha students and those who are marginalized. In corporations, that same natural tendency for people to interact with each other according to power relationships is evident.
So when there is a critical decision to be made about how to handle a crisis, manage an Initial Public Offering, reposition a high-visibility brand, respond to an attack by elected officials or deal with a major consumer issue, corporate communications needs influence and political allies when it makes its case.
For decades, our profession’s most accomplished chief communications officers have usually been masterful politicians. Not only did they leverage strong relationships with their CEOs but they knew how to line up support when critical matters were debated.
The larger an organization, the more difficult it is to achieve this level of influence. It doesn’t happen by accident. So what should communicators do to strengthen their political muscles?
- Be open about the need for political influence. Think and talk about it as a skill that needs to be mastered as part of professional development. Just saying aloud that this is a goal will make a difference. Be clear with everyone that the objective is to affect key policy and business decisions in ways that enhance corporate reputation.
- Get all the communicators on staff to accept that gaining influence is one of the screens used to select assignments. Communications departments have more work than they can handle, so prioritizing takes place on an ongoing basis. Since it is essential to the function’s effectiveness, everyone should give extra consideration to the work that builds appreciation for the value of corporate reputation.
- Develop strategic relationships. All major business undertakings require partnerships. Pick a few leaders and/or business units whose voice carries weight in key discussions. Make a special effort to build mutual respect between them and the communications department.
- Internally and externally, market and promote the good work of the corporate communications team. While most communications departments are comfortable doing PR for business units and other departments, they rarely give themselves the same consideration. This is tacit acknowledgement that the communications function is of less value than all the others. That’s not true.
Yes, office politics can be a contact sport, with winners and losers, but it’s necessary to get in the game. Communicators need to get better at being persuasive and at building support among senior executives. To do our work effectively, influence is more important than budgets, head count or reporting relationships.
John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.