Let’s face it: Professional communicators are dealing with an unprecedented pace of change.
Technology is the most obvious provocateur. Over the past few decades, professional communicators have borne witness to astounding technological change—the rise of the Internet, the empowerment of consumers through social media, the adoption of mobile devices, the emergence of new media channels, and the increasing influence of social media. Each has had an impact on our view of communication and the way we approach our audiences.
The world around us has also changed. Today organizations are facing increasing public scrutiny, not just from shareholders and customers, but from the public at large. Transparency has become a buzzword as communicators, executives, and regulators all strive to walk the fine line between disclosing too much and saying too little. Let’s not forget the little economic roller-coaster ride we all just took, and the messy collateral damage that came in its wake: Restructuring, layoffs, foreclosures, sovereign debt crises, bankruptcies and the associated widespread misery they caused have changed the tone of public discourse and reset the values of consumers.
As professional communicators, we must be at the forefront of change. We are—like it or not—change agents, and we hold a solemn responsibility to guide our organizations through turbulent times. From crisis communication and issues management to employee engagement and media relations, it is largely our work that will decide how our organizations adapt and move forward.
While professional communicators are certainly no strangers to change, many have found the incessant pace difficult to maintain, and change itself even harder to predict.
So how will successful communicators adapt to this complex world of change? In short, by taking a more flexible approach, particularly in five key areas:
- Strategic flexibility: Recognizing that an ever-changing environment calls for highly adaptable strategies, savvy communicators are building their strategic plans to allow for more flexibility in their execution. Rather than a simple exercise in ”managing expectations,” strategic flexibility requires that communicators actively seek out better (i.e., more efficient, more cost-effective or better quality) approaches in order to continuously improve service delivery. For example, if a new social networking site emerges on the scene, communicators must have the flexibility to identify, assess and adapt their strategies in real time in order to take advantage of opportunities or mitigate organizational risk.
- Resource flexibility: Many communication leaders are starting to realign their team’s skill set to deliver a more flexible range of services to their organizations. In some cases, this means putting a greater emphasis on building new specialties in areas like social media. Increasingly, communication executives are responding to the changing environment by shifting the mix of skills that they retain in-house to build a team of strategic generalists with a focus on project management. This provides communication teams with a greater level of flexibility to quickly adapt to changes in the market and, since nobody is “hardwired” to a specific function, provides flexibility to manage the peaks and valleys that often occur.
- Vendor flexibility: One of the more noticeable outcomes of all the recent change has been a proliferation of outsourced specialists. In part, this is a result of new services being developed to support emerging technologies (take, for example, SEO services or podcast providers). But it has also been fuelled by corporate downsizing and—as suggested above—the recalibration of in-house communication teams. In response, many communication professionals are building relationships with a wider set of niche service providers, thereby gaining access to a broader choice of suppliers and creating greater flexibility in the way they allocate resources to projects.
- Work-life balance flexibility: Professional communicators have never really been great at following the traditional 9-to-5 lifestyle. But as mobile devices continue to gain greater acceptance in the workplace, and high-speed connectivity spreads across the globe, we can expect to see the line between work and home become more and more blurred. Communicators will need to find a more flexible work-life balance—not just to take care of important work tasks after hours or on weekends—but also to make the most of down time by taking days in lieu, extended lunches or running personal errands.
- Individual flexibility: To successfully manage this constantly changing environment, professional communicators will need to find a lot more individual flexibility. No, this doesn’t mean doing more yoga. We’re talking about the ability to adapt to—and quickly adopt—new technologies, processes, and methodologies where it makes sense, and drop outdated ones that may have outlived their usefulness. This will require communicators to keep both an open mind and a vigilant eye on the future to stay on top of market trends and understand the resulting impact on their strategies and service levels.
Unfortunately, professional communicators should not expect a decrease in the pace of change any time soon. This is, as they say, the “new normal.” But for those communicators who approach the future with a degree of flexibility, change can also create opportunities for competitive advantage—not only for their organizations, but also for their personal careers.
About the author
Peter Schram is the author of The Communicator, a weekly blog series focused on sharing best practices to help professional communicators navigate the challenges of an ever-changing world. Peter is also the owner of Communications Unlimited, a Toronto-based writing and communications strategy shop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at +1 416.453.1377.