No matter the organization in which he might step into a chief communications officer role, Ronald Alepian uses the same technique to develop his strategy, gain the attention of his peers in the C-suite and obtain the buy-in he needs to execute successfully.
It’s not a formula or a framework. It all boils down to a simple question that, depending on the answer, will help guide his decisions around priorities, processes and, ultimately, budget. The question is, “How do we measure success?”
For someone who has had CCO roles at TMX Group, CA Technologies and now TD Bank, Alepian says determining the common metrics that matter across an entire organization is the only way to ensure the communications function aligns with areas like sales, marketing, HR and IT.
Achieving Organizational Alignment
“What I’m not saying is to try and conceive consensus about what the communications function is going to accomplish,” he says. “It’s not about tactical outcomes, but what you need to succeed.”
Achieving that organizational alignment is more important than ever, given the increased digital capabilities available to corporate communications professionals and the challenge of articulating their needs to senior leaders. Cision’s recently published white paper, for example, ‘How To Get Executive Buy-In For A Media Database,’ offering insights and strategies to build a business case for sophisticated technology resources that could accelerate the success of CCOs and their teams.
According to Alepian, the most important way to begin any conversation with a CEO and other executives is to focus on return-on-investment (ROI) as early as possible.
“It’s the perennial problem of every communications professional: How do you fund your ideas?” he says. “The answer is actually pretty simple. I’ve found that whether I was in consulting or executive roles, people don’t invest in ideas, they invest in outcomes. Ideas are the emotional connection — that’s why they pay attention to you. That’s why they engage with you, that’s why you have a seat at the table. But they invest intellectually.”
One of the complicating factors in getting the go-ahead for technology purchases, in particular, is all the internal competition, suggests Dean Burgess, an executive coach with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge, a global consulting and career services firm.
“I don’t know that organizations have fully decided or landed, if you will, on who owns the digital strategy,” she says. “I think that influences the ability for individuals in communications roles to be heard, basically.”
Before she became an executive coach, Burgess spent much of her career as a chief information officer (CIO), where she witnessed first-hand what it’s like to make the rest of the C-suite realize the importance of investing in technologies that will bring them long-term benefit. She says many of the CIO’s historical issues of translating what the technology can to do in business terms has now migrated to corporate communications and other lines of business.
“There’s still that gap in language, that disconnect from the executive team,” she says. “That’s not a new problem. It has a different uniform, but it’s not a new problem.”
Alepian says looking for concrete areas where impact can be tracked is one way to overcome that problem. A CCO or comms professional might conduct a survey on employee engagement, for instance, then outline not merely the features of a particular tool but a proposal about how investing in and employing a tool will change employee engagement within a particular period.
This means getting granular, he continued: not just talking broadly about goals around “share of voice,” but share of voice within a specific market, with specific media outlets in a specific topic area. A comms strategy that yields the right coverage in a sector where the company is trying to recruit staff, for instance, could have a tangible benefit to the organization, and might even allow the corp comms team to partner with HR.
“It sharpens our work,” he says. “Given the power of digital and data, and given my ability to measure with content, the pull of my employees, I can attach certain hard metrics. If I can do that, I can get investment.”
To some extent, making a good business case is a form of “managing up,” but Burgess said she also advises her coaching clients to think about “managing sideways” — building better rapport with their peer group in order to have the backup they need when it comes time to make a request or propose an initiative.
“Oftentimes people still, to this day, think, ‘My results will speak for themselves.’ That’s not true. You need to speak to your results,” she says, adding that conveying results in the right way can reposition how the organization values a particular function. “At the end of the day, how key is marketing or communications, if you will, as it relates to the C-suite and the board? What do they feel? Is it a key differentiator or something they feel they have to do?”
Alepian predicts that CCOs and their teams will increasingly be made up of people who rise to the top because they are focused on doing things that have an effect on the bottom line. The advancement of digital tools in PR is a stepping stone towards that future.
“It’s not perfect, it’s not always an exact science, but you want to talk about it that way,” he says. “Everyone will always have an opinion, but the more you connect the work that you’re doing to something truly qualitative and quantitative, the more you will have a voice.”