Corporate communications and digital excellence

Corporate communications and digital excellence

Originally published: 12 January 2012

by Diana Railton

Where in an organisation are leadership and skills in digital communications best found?

‘Coping with the digital evolution and the social web’ is the most important issue in corporate communications until 2014, The European Communication Monitor 2011 found.

But while most top communication managers report to the chief executive, and many sit on the board, how well are their teams liaising?


In corporate communications, 360° management has always been hard. Functions such as investor relations, public relations, internal communications and marketing communications have traditionally sat in silos with their own agendas.

Is this beginning to change? Many say no, and digital specialists frequently complain that they bear the brunt of cross-organisational turf wars.

Andrew Thomas, publisher of Communicate magazine, believes there is now more convergence of communication disciplines, responsibilities, audiences, channels and content than ever before.

Talking to South West Corporate Communicators last month, he gave as an example First Direct’s social media newsroom, a winner at the Digital Impact Awards.

‘Digital’ is confusing

When people ask what digital means, it’s hard to give a quick answer.

By digital communications, most of us mean communication via the web, mobile and tablets – with all the add ons. But it can stretch to many other forms of electronic and computer communications.

The digital workplace is more than an extended social intranet. Wikipedia describes it as ‘the total of the computer applications that you work with’.

Digital awards competitions provide a useful breakdown of growing categories. And, of course, in communications and content strategies we are explicit.

Old meets new

Whatever part of the organisation digital communication specialists are assigned to, conflict can arise.

‘Corporate Comms…. What’s it good for?’ screamed a headline on the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, sparked by a heated discussion on Google+.

Many corporate communicators are used to controlling news and messages. It can be hard to step aside and act as social facilitators.

While ‘content’ is a prime unit of measurement to digital experts, others can be sceptical.

‘I have difficulty with the concept of content,’ wrote the Wordmonger. ‘… it smacks of a term coined in desperation to describe a disparate and amorphous group of extraordinarily different concepts and products with the idea of somehow “bucketizing” it (thank you, America) ….’

Anyway, he adds: ‘It’s the same old stuff that we communicators have been producing since time began, with a few new bits.’

Yes – and no. As communication teams gather themselves, sophisticated international work on digital content strategy is bypassing them. There are inevitable crossovers and, at times, unnecessary duplication.

We need to work together, sharing ideas and expertise.

The digital centre of excellence

Last month Econsultancy published a best practice guide called Digital Marketing: Organisational Structures and Resourcing.

Written by Neil Perkin, its aim was to identify the common challenges medium to large organisations are facing in ‘structuring their digital marketing capability’. The full report is well worth reading.

It found, for example, that most respondents believe their board/senior management has a good grasp of the potential of digital channels. But it’s difficult to decide how to prioritise digital projects, especially because resources are limited.

To tackle this, many organisations have set up a digital centre of excellence where experts report to one head.

This often evolves into ‘hub and spoke’: some experts stay in the centre of excellence, and others are placed in selected divisions.

For many organisations, there is a long way to go before digital expertise is fully integrated.

Recruiting the right people

Neil identified the need for ‘T-shaped people’ to work on digital projects in multidisciplinary teams.

T-shaped people are hard to come by. Apart from having a strong vertical digital skill, they need to understand and empathise with the broader context of work in their department, and other digital skills. They are quick to collaborate and take part in ‘collective idea-making’.

Many more digital communication roles are being advertised nowadays, reporting to a variety of sections. Job titles I’ve noticed include: Head of Digital Communications, Head of Content, Head of Content Strategy, Online Communications Manager, Senior Digital Content Manager, Senior Channel Manager, Social Media Manager, Communications and Content Manager.

Here’s to their integration – and the team work needed for digital excellence.

Special thanks to Mark Morrell for commenting on the first draft.
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