I Have People for That: Outsourcing corporate communication


Online CommunityOutsourcing has become popular in large organizations in recent years, largely as a result of several trends:

  • Companies going “lean” and “sticking to core competencies,” which frequently means outsourcing non-core work.
  • The increasing complexity of many non-core functions such as benefits and compensation, real estate, risk management, and Sarbanes-Oxley requirements, makes outsourcing them an easy decision.
  • Increased merger and acquisition activity—companies that have outsourced non-core work and reduced the workforce are more attractive to potential buyers.

Of course, smaller organizations have always outsourced functions for which they could not justify hiring employee specialists, including HR, accounting, legal, communication and marketing projects.

Optimizing outsourcing in the corporate communication department

Outsourcing is not new to the corporate communication department. The breadth and complexity of communication technology and the widely varied skills needed to communicate effectively to all audiences make it nearly impossible for a corporate communication department to do it all.

During 25 years of corporate communication consulting, every organization I’ve worked with has handled communication outsourcing differently—and most organizations vary their strategy from year to year.

However, there are two basic models of outsourcing currently in use. As you are planning your department’s structure, think about how you will balance staff capacity with outsourcing partners.

The corporate staff is able to plan and develop most of the regular communication needed by the organization. Equipment- or technology-intensive work such as printing, video production and programming is outsourced, as are projects that require special skills and are only needed occasionally, including special events management, change management, speechwriting and web design.

If your organization uses the Model 1 approach, there are ways to outsource more efficiently:

  • Set priorities for work done by corporate staff. Typically, this includes work that is needed most frequently (such as a daily news line) and projects that are most critical to the organization’s reputation and success.
  • Get the most for what you are spending on outsourcing (See “Make Outsourcing Work Well” below). If you are in a zero-growth budget mode or need to cut back, enlist the help of your partners.

Model 2: The lean corporate communication organization and heavy use of outsourcing partners

In these organizations, a small team of communication professionals provides strategy and project management for dozens of projects that are executed by outside specialists, including public relations firms, marketing firms, employee communication consultants, media relations experts, web designers and more.

Model 2 organizations can also outsource more efficiently by:

  • Developing strong, trusted partner relationships, making outsourcing partners an extension of staff. This could mean providing office space for partners, giving them access to the company intranet and having them work directly with internal clients in your company.
  • Prioritizing staff time on projects and products that make the biggest impact on the organization.
    Hiring staff communicators who do not feel compelled to do everything themselves and who are strong project managers.
  • Understanding that outsourcing partners see both an upside and downside to making a big commitment to one organization. If you will be scaling back, give the partner as much notice as possible.
  • Looking for partners who can provide a start-to-finish product, which will minimize your staff’s project management time.
  • Using a good project management system and asking your partners to use it, too.
  • Remembering that you get what you pay for. When staff time is limited, go with proven partners who will deliver.

There are four critical considerations when deciding whether to outsource and which outsourcing partner to use.

  • Quality: Will the work quality be considerably better or worse if it is outsourced?
  • Reputation risk: Will this project have a significant impact on the organization’s reputation internally or externally? If the impact is high and you plan to outsource, it’s critical to have a partner you can trust completely.
  • Cost: Is the cost considerably more or less if it is outsourced? To calculate internal cost, look at the total staff cost (pay and benefits, plus the multiplier for all other staff expense). For outsourcing, include the staff cost for project management plus the outsourcing expense.
  • Capacity: Do internal staff have the time and skills to handle the project? Are there higher priority projects?

Make outsourcing work well

Being in the outsourcing business for many years, I’ve learned that there are several things that a buyer of outsourcing services can do to get the best from their partners:

  1. Treat your outsourcing partners as partners rather than vendors or suppliers. Look for partners who are a good match for your organization culturally and with whom you enjoy working.
  2. Define the work clearly, including the expected outcome, the number of revisions, the schedule, the budget and confidentiality restrictions. Have a project manager on both sides of the relationship and define their responsibilities in writing.
  3. Help your outsourcing partners become knowledgeable about your organization. Provide them with background information including:
    • Information the company gives to new hires.
    • Subscriptions to employee publications.
    • Books and trade publications important to your company.
    • A demographic snapshot of your workforce.
    • A description of your customers and products.
  4. Look for ways to consolidate your outsourcing with fewer partners. It means less project management for your staff and more commitment and loyalty from your partners. You may be able to negotiate a volume discount or advantageous retainer.
  5. Ask your partners when their business cycle is slow and if possible, schedule your work during those times. Your work will get more attention and you may get a discount.
  6. Allow your partners to discuss your projects with other clients and offer to write letters of recommendation.