Review: Communication Excellence

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Communication Excellence: How to Develop, Manage and Lead Exceptional Communications
Ralph Tench, Dejan Vercic, Ansgar Zerfass, Angeles Moreno, Piet Verhoeven
2017, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Excellence has a specific meaning in the public relations academic literature, referring to a ten-year research project led by Professor James Grunig that resulted in three books published between 1992 and 2002.

Another ten year research programme, the European Communication Monitor (ECM), has led to this publication. (Despite the name, the study has recently been extended to America and Asia.)

So this book is the result of ten years of data and the collaboration of scholars from various European countries. It looks not only at the performance of communications teams, but at their influence within their organisations.

Specifically, the authors identify three levels at which excellent communications is required: at an organisational, departmental and professional level.

  • Excellent organisations are connected to their environments and stakeholders, which requires them to be globalised, mediatised and reflective’
  • Excellent communication departments are influential within their organisations. This means they have to be embedded, datafied and strategised.’
  • Excellent communication professionals are ambitious; this includes being sagacious, linked and solid.’

The nine commandments

These three aspects of excellence, each having three attributes, lead to ‘the nine commandments of excellent communication’ that gives the book its structure.

There’s plenty of data and each chapter is extensively referenced, but the use of footnotes rather than academic citations makes this a lighter and less forbidding read than is the case with purely academic books.

This book also fits well with the syllabus of the new CIPR Professional PR Diploma. I’ve noticed how candidates in the first year of the course have been reluctant to move away from conventional academic referencing in their assignments. The example in this book, and also that of Anne Gregory and Paul Willis’s Strategic Public Relations Leadership from 2013, should give candidates (and their tutors) confidence to try a new approach.

Let’s quickly review the nine commandments as presented here:

Commandment 1: Globalised

The authors discuss internationalisation and liberalisation and ask whether the Western model can any longer be seen as the clear winner.

‘Anybody who wants to stay at the top of the global communication game has to start paying attention to communication practices beyond the borders of the Western world.’

Commandment 2: Mediatised

Mediatisation is used as a shorthand to summarise all the changes in the media landscape, particularly in the context of digital and social media. ‘We do not live with, but in media.’

‘Excellent communication professionals are aware of the omnipresence of media inside and outside the organisation and the possible effects that has on relationships and reputation.’

Commandment 3: Reflective

According to the authors, ‘reflection is important because it enables learning.’

‘Excellent organisations are more open to influence from wider environments than non-excellent organisations. It is precisely this openness that gives them a competitive strategic advantage.’

Commandment 4: Embedded

‘Communication professionals have to show leadership to be able to become embedded in the organisation and the organisation has to show leadership to become embedded in its surroundings.’

Commandment 5: Datafied

The challenge is to analyse and interpret the plethora of data available to communicators. It is brought into focus by the continuing struggle to evaluate public relations, as shown by the ECM findings.

‘In Europe three out of four practitioners identified the inability to prove the impact of communication activities on most organisational goals as the major barrier to the further professionalisation of communication.’

The discussion leads on from evaluation to big data, algorithms and automation (rather oddly called ‘automatisation’ here).

‘Excellent communication departments are pioneers in big data… Big data analytics are used more intensively in excellent departments to plan overall strategies, justify activities and guide day-to-day action.’

Commandment 6: Strategised

‘One of the biggest issues in the field of communication is the ability of communication departments to be involved in the strategic decision-making of the organisation.’

Yet the ECM study shows that ‘communication professionals continue to be more focused on sending messages than on receiving them. The small number of organisations that have introduced clear listening strategies also underlines this point.’

In search of super(wo)man

Commandment 7: Sagacious

Pointing to the high academic attainment of most communication professionals, the authors argue that this suggests ‘the practice of strategic communication is a real profession.’

Interestingly, ‘women and young people find professionalisation in all its manifestations more important than men and older professionals.’

‘Being sagacious means being knowledgeable, having reflective wisdom and the ability to judge well. It requires individual understanding about communication processes as well as the effects of communication at a societal, organisational and individual level.’

Commandment 8: Linked

The authors have identified a paradox: while ‘it seems clear that contemporary and future professional communication is high tech communication. But at the same time, we also see the rising importance of face-to-face (high-touch) communication.’

‘In essence, any communication practitioner must be adaptable, energetic, versatile, diplomatic and resilient to get along with a mixed group of clients and stakeholder groups.’

Commandment 9: Solid

‘By this we mean having explicit individual solidity driven by personal, organisational and professional ethics and frameworks as well as exploring issues of pluralism and diversity in the workplace.’

‘Individual solidity first of all means that you have to be able to handle paradoxes.’

In a clever twist, the final chapter sees paradoxes in each of these commandments. For example, ‘while professional communicators should be ethical, they must also make things happen.’

Tutors and lecturers will find this a valuable teaching resource. Advanced students and senior practitioners should find much to aspire to in this book.

It’s a pared-down read that compresses lots of data and academic arguments into a short book. Though the authors acknowledge the feminisation of the field, this reads like a brisk and rather male summary, with few flashes of personality.