Perceptions and positioning of communication departments

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While the significance of internal and external communications is growing amid digitalization and geopolitical conflicts, the appreciation and available resources for those in charge are stagnating or even diminishing. How can this be? Do top managers and other departments grasp the full range of contributions provided by communication teams? And how does this fuel corporate success?

The research project by Leipzig University surveyed 1,147 top executives, middle managers and employees without leadership responsibilities in large German companies. They ware asked about their perceptions of the objectives, tasks, and relevance of their communication departments. The results reveal an urgent need to sharpen the profile of corporate communications.

How others assess corporate communications – six findings

1. Only top managers rate the standing and performance of their communication departments highly.

  • 87% of top managers are satisfied with the corporate communication activities of their organization, and 97% affirm a high standing of the communication department—an encouraging result that provides a solid foundation for further improvement.
  • However, approval ratings drop among middle managers and employees, with only 60% and 51% expressing satisfaction with the communication work.
  • A similar trend is observed when comparing against competitors: only in top management do three out of four respondents believe their corporate communication surpasses that of the competition. At other hierarchical levels, fewer than half share this belief.

2. Many are not familiar with the tasks and objectives of their communication department.

  • Communicators are mainly recognized for their operational duties, such as creating content, running campaigns, organizing events, monitoring public opinion, and overseeing language rules or design guidelines.
  • Among the strategically relevant tasks, reputation and brand management are mentioned most frequently. However, only 60% of top managers see this as the responsibility of the communication department.
  • 80% of the top executives are aware of the objectives of the communication department, compared to only 58% of middle managers and 40% of employees. Bridging this knowledge gap can lead to greater acceptance within the company.

3. Communicators do not sufficiently support managers and employees in achieving their goals. 

  • The findings on the relevance of professional communication work are concerning: Only one in two top managers (50%) and around one in three middle managers (36%) and employees (30%) state that the communication department supports them in fulfilling their own tasks.
  • Respondents are also critical of the human and financial resources allocated to communications. Only 53% of top managers, 59% of middle managers, and 40% of employees believe these resources are justified.
  • This lack of perceived support helps to explain why communication departments often struggle to secure necessary resources despite the growing importance of corporate communications in times of crisis.

Every second manager doubts that the resources and budgets spent of communications in their own companty are justified!

4. Only one in two regards the communication department as competent.

  • Only one in two respondents (57% of top managers, 54% of middle managers, and 52% of employees) consider the communication department to be competent. This might explain why communicators are often not consulted on important business issues.
  • In fact, only half of the top managers seek advice from the communication department on strategic decisions. Two-thirds acknowledge that communicators support or coach them in their communication efforts.
  • This discrepancy raises questions about whether communication professionals are truly seen as consultants and coaches.

5. Increased interaction with the communication department leads to better ratings.

  • The study reveals that frequent interaction with the communication department improves colleagues‘ understanding of its responsibilities, roles, and goals. This familiarity leads to higher ratings of the department’s reputation, influence and capabilities. Conversely, a lack of awareness about the communication department’s work negatively impacts its reputation and standing within the company.
  • Another statistically significant correlation found is that when employees view communication as a key business success factor, they also believe that the resources allocated to the communication department are justified. Thus, a better understanding of corporate communications and its value can enhance the acceptance of the communication teams.

6. Communication work requires higher visibility and internal advocacy.

Communication managers should strategically promote their work and successes within the company to legitimize their role—for instance, by explaining their profile holistically when working on projects with other departments, in management training, and in onboarding processes. Only those who are in demand and accepted can contribute with their expertise to corporate success.

Prof. Dr. Ansgar Zerfaß, Universität Leipzig

» Communicators need a compelling mission and a consistent narrative for their work. There is still significant potential, particularly in the relationships to middle management, who will be the top decision-makers of tomorrow. «

Professor Ansgar Zerfass, Leipzig University

Strategies for corporate communications to strengthen their profile

There is an urgent need for action to improve the standing within the organization. This is why 32 senior communication leaders (chief communication officers or their deputies) in listed and private companies in Germany were personally interviewed to learn how they position their teams within their organizations to gain acceptance and
influence. The following graphic summarizes perceptions of communcation departments and possible courses of action.

Based on the research findings the study concluded different implications for communication leaders. A four-step model was developed to enhance the internal positioning of communication departments:

About the study

The study was conducted by researchers and graduate students at the Chair of Strategic Communication at Leipzig University headed by Professor Ansgar Zerfass. The project was supported through a grant by the Academic Society for Management & Communication. Anke Schmidt (Beiersdorf), Frank van Hoorn (Shell), Nils Haupt (Hapag Lloyd) and Thomas Voigt (Otto Group) helped to initiate and focus the project by sharing their CCO experiences.