Thought Leadership

The Shifting Role of Comms


Imagine this:

It’s 1964, and you’re the head of communications for Hellmann’s Mayo (just stay with me here), which, broadly speaking, means you are in charge of delivering the company’s message to the public. You might be drafting a press release that’s slated for distribution on the wire next week announcing you’ve just been picked up by the UK’s largest grocery store chain. Maybe you’re drafting a speech for the CEO who is appearing at a major event next month. Regardless of the task, you’d be sitting in front of a typewriter next to a wired telephone. 

Fast forward.

It’s 2024. Hellmann’s is part of the Unilever family, and it’s been a big couple of weeks. Kate McKinnon and Pete Davidson just starred in your Mayo Cat commercial, which aired during the Super Bowl. You’re flying home from Las Vegas, fielding press inquiries on your iPhone, tracking mentions across business press, consumer press, and social media while responding to your boss, who is asking you to review the newest “back-to-office” communication going out to the entire global team tomorrow. (Also, schools are going remote tomorrow for a snowstorm…did you remember to set up your child’s Google Classroom login back in September?) 

What does “comms” mean today?

To say that the world has changed over the last sixty years is an understatement. And though these changes have impacted many types of roles, as someone who leads a marketing agency I’m most interested in exploring the evolution of communication–and not just out of interest but out of need and urgency. A persistent theme in my conversations with C-suite leaders is frustration and misalignment surrounding the role and function of communications within their organization. They’re not seeing leadership or strategic engagement from their Comms teams and cannot pinpoint the reason.

Comms burnout is real.

At the same time, I’m hearing directly from communications professionals that they’re burned out and exhausted. They’re coming off of what have likely been the most intense years of their professional careers. They’re expected to understand and have a strategic point of view about the myriad of platforms now available and feeling increased pressure around internal communications in response to timely cultural and political events. They feel undervalued by their peers, their leadership teams, and their organizations. Throw generative AI in the mix as a looming unknown, and you’ve got a communication team that feels overworked, vulnerable, and concerned.

So who’s right?

Well, everybody and nobody. The executive team can’t be expected to invest more resources in a team or function that they can’t confidently say is supporting the healthy growth of their business. And organizations can’t expect their communications team to stretch across more and more platforms and internal needs and not expect to see “breadth not depth.” 

The reality is, though more resources may legitimately be required in some situations, in my experience, more intentional priorities are the most effective place to start. The good news is that being intentional has no immediate impact on your expense line (other than the time required to do so)…the bad news is that it’s harder than writing a check. 

When management isn’t seeing results and the team is struggling, everyone loses. But when the only place to go is up, we’ve got a real opportunity to make meaningful change. 

Given the general sentiment of discontent, we have an opportunity today to make substantial progress, foster deeper engagement, and fundamentally reimagine our approach to comms. 

The journey from the typewriter to the smartphone, from press releases to viral videos, has not only changed the landscape but also the very essence of how we work. It’s a pivotal moment to reassess and realign, to ensure our voices resonate in a world cluttered with messages. In a sense, it’s been assembled piece by piece over time, leading to a “Frankeinstein-ed” approach that leaves many confused and wanting more. 

However, what if we viewed this not as a patchwork problem but as an opportunity to creatively restructure and reimagine the team? This shift in perspective could be the key to unlock a new era of innovation and effectiveness within our organization, aligning more closely both with our business goals and the aspirations of our team members.

Where should we start?

First, let’s redefine the essence of strategic communications. Success isn’t merely about spreading our messages; it’s about connecting our communications goals to our business goals. This sounds easy, but it’s not. It will require some vulnerability on behalf of leadership to really define what success looks like for the organization, and collaboration with the comms team to think creatively about how their efforts can support that goal and how that effort can be measured. And it may not be the traditional comms metrics we’re used to. 

Second, we have to prioritize. In an age where possibilities are limitless, our resources are not. The challenge isn’t for your comms team to be everywhere at once but to be impactful where it matters most. Our communications priorities should reflect our business goals and the communities we serve. We can’t afford to spread ourselves thin, chasing after every platform and trend. Instead, we can channel our efforts, intention, and investment into the spaces where we can truly connect and move our audience.

And third, we need to support our people. Leadership has an opportunity to improve the outputs of their communications teams by intentionally listening with empathy, encouraging them to test and learn, and empowering them to implement insights and pivot where needed. Celebrate both external achievements like a high-performing ad, and internal achievements like a positive and generative team staff meeting. Recognize the effort of your team even when it doesn’t lead to a viral TikTok sensation but supports the day in, day out brand storytelling work that connects you to your most fervent audiences. In the rapidly evolving world of communications, allow your communications team to be the experts we need.

We’ve got a real chance to realign our communications efforts to engage our core audiences in ways that are more meaningful, authentic, and transformative than ever before. Because in the end, the future of communications isn’t just about keeping up; it’s about leading the way with a story worth telling.

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