What makes an excellent corporate communications department?
An investigation into the impact of organisational structure on the positioning of the corporate communications function within civil engineering organisations.
About the author
Charlotte Greaves works in corporate communication. She submitted her dissertation for an MSc in Corporate Communications from Leeds Beckett University.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of organisational structure on the positioning of the corporate communication (CC) function within civil engineering organisations and to determine the factors which create what academics define as ‘an excellent CC department.’
- Define the purpose of corporate communications within organisations
- Define what makes an ‘excellent’ corporate communications function
- Analyse academic and practitioners perspectives on the ‘best fit’ for corporate communications within organisational structures
- Explore how organisational structure impacts the positioning of corporate communications
- Explore the impact of contingent variables and managerial influences on the positioning of corporate communications and communication excellence within civil engineering organisations through the lens of contingency theory and power-control theory
- How does the positioning of the corporate communications function within an organisational structure impact its ability to influence and contribute to strategic decision making?
- What does the current positioning of corporate communications within civil engineering organisations suggest about the organisations’ perception of the function?
- Where does the corporate communications function best fit within civil engineering organisations?
- What can organisations learn from practitioners on the positioning of the corporate communications function?
Communication is fundamental to the function of an effective and successful organisation. The current economic and political environment with concerns and uncertainties surrounding Brexit and more recently Coronavirus has exposed the communication function as a vital technical asset in organisational response and survival. Communication is a resource that enables the existence, motivation and development of an organisation and has historically been recognised as a managerial and economic necessity for organisations. Organisations that do not recognise its importance and continue to take a laissez-faire approach to communication will undoubtedly find it increasingly difficult to compete in the competitive marketplace. Unfortunately, it often takes unprecedented times such as Brexit or the Covid-19 pandemic for organisations to recognise the true value of a strong corporate communications function.
This research paper explored the idea that corporate communication often does not receive adequate recognition of its strategic importance, highlighted by it positioning with an organisation.
The positioning of corporate communications is often a result of contingent organisational variables such as size, maturity and managerial preferences/understanding. Not only can these factors determine or not least influence the positioning of the function, but as a result, they impact the effectiveness of corporate communications in its ability to carry out a strategic role: protecting and building corporate reputation; managing stakeholder relationships and creating a competitive advantage.
There is much debate amongst academics and practitioners as to where the corporate communications function should be positioned in organisations; whether as a separate strategic management function, divided into sub-functions or integrated into other departments. This is influenced by multiple factors, including: organisational structure, organisation type and size, perceptions of top management; practitioner capabilities, and strategic and environmental factors.
This indicates that there is no universal ‘best fit’ solution to the positioning of CC within organisations.
However, there are a number of characteristics associated with ‘excellent communication departments’ – derived from Grunig’s work on the ‘Excellent Model of PR’ and Zerfass and Volk’s research – which should be evident in all organisations for the function to be effective.
One of these characteristics, which is particularly relevant to this study, is the argument that corporate communications should be positioned within an organisation’s ‘dominant coalition’. In other words, the function should have a seat at the top table, have senior level representation e.g. from a Communications Director or equivalent and be actively involved in and contribute to key strategic decisions.
An analysis of the existing literature formed the theoretical basis of the paper. A combined theoretical approach was taken, incorporating two theories: Contingency Theory and Power-Control Theory to help to explain why organisations are structured as they are and the implications of this for the positioning of the corporate communications function.
Contingency Theory suggests that organisational structure is influenced and determined by environmental factors such as size, industry and strategy and is based on the principle of interdependency, telling that organisations adapt their formal structure to align with environmental factors.
Dissimilarly, power-control theory proposes that it is not all about what is contingent, suggesting that organisational structure is often a result of managerial choices, with the preferences, interest and power of managers affecting structural-related decisions. This can be useful in interrogating why things operate as they do, in particular providing explanation into the reporting relationship of corporate communications – whether or not this is to the dominant coalition.
To gain practitioner insight and explore the topic in relation to civil engineering organisations, three organisations of varying size were selected and interviews conducted with communication practitioners from each organisation. Three organisations were studied and four interviews conducted with practitioners in varying roles from junior to senior level.
The research showed that both in theory and practice, excellent communication departments are strongly defined by structural factors influencing the department’s positioning within an organisation. The study demonstrated a strong congruence between the theoretical and practical parameters that define an excellent communications department, particularly related to the structural paradigms of civil engineering organisations.
The most prominent factor being the ability of a communications department to access and influence the dominant coalition in order to successfully contribute to the achievement of an organisation’s strategic aims and objectives.
The practitioner insight highlighted the practical challenges (shown below) and implications of the absence of this within their organisations, concurrent with theoretical suggestions that the true value of corporate communications is often not recognised by organisations, particularly in this case, civil engineering organisations. This highlighted the managerial behavioural drivers which may be influencing the positioning of the corporate communications function.
The positioning and reporting structure of the corporate communications function was different in all three organisations (shown below), possibly illustrating the argument that there is no ‘best fit’ for all organisations. However, also emphasising a lack of consistency in approach across civil engineering organisations.
Interestingly, despite these differences, all the practitioners interviewed agreed that the ‘best fit’ for corporate communications was as a separate strategic management function positioned alongside other C-suite executives with senior level representation in the form of a Head of Communications or Communications Director.
All practitioners agreed that the placement of corporate communications within another management function such as HR was detrimental to the ability of the function to carry out its strategic role effectively.
The outcome of the interviews also indicated that civil engineering organisations, particularly those studied, appeared to be allocating insufficient resource to corporate communications, which could be an indication as to the variation in positioning observed in the three organisations studied and suggest a lack of support for the importance of the discipline in the industry.
The research also supported academic perspective into ‘excellence factors’ of corporate communications, suggesting that the absence of these (highlighted below), notably having representation at a senior levels and access to an organisation’s dominant coalition, can lead to departmental dysfunctions and impact the effectiveness of corporate communication.
The Excellence Theory and principles state the following:
- The public relations function should be located in the organisational structure so that it has ready access to the key decision makers of the organisation (the dominant coalition) and so that it can contribute to the strategic management processes of the organisation
- All communication programs should be integrated into or coordinated by the public relations department or a senior executive with a public relations title (e.g. a senior vice president of corporate communication)
- Public relations should not be subordinated to other departments such as marketing, human resources or finance
- Public relations departments should be structured horizontally to reflect strategic publics and so that it is possible to reassign people and resources to new programs as new strategic publics emerge and other publics cease to be strategic
In summary, the research indicated the presence of both contingency and power-control theory in practice in civil engineering organisations. Whilst this supports academic research on an individual theory basis, it also suggests interdependencies across the perspectives, with organisational structure and the positioning of corporate communications affected both by contingent variables and managerial preferences and decisions. Further research would be beneficial to explore further the underlying drivers of managerial perceptions and how these impact subsequent actions in relation to organisational structure and the positioning of corporate communications.