Earlier this year, Viacom created a new position, naming an executive as senior vice president for communications and culture. The move got very little notice…but it should have. It marks a strategic organizational shift every CEO should consider.
“Culture” is one of those words companies throw around a lot but often mistake the meaning. Every company nowadays promotes its culture as a differentiator, when, in fact, most cultures are just different shades on the greyscale. At its heart, culture is really a combination of a work environment and how individuals operate collectively in that environment to promote a company’s products and ideals. Put even more simply by CultureIQ, a software company that helps quantify corporate culture, a company’s culture is “how things get done in an organization.”
Traditionally, because the focus has been on the talent side of the equation, maintenance of a corporate culture has been delegated to human resources departments. It is true that promoting culture can lead to better talent. But, in far too many companies, human resources departments are neither human nor a very good resource in this regard. The approach often slips into efforts to impose and enforce culture as part of the hiring or performance review process. “Memorize these 10 core principles of Acme Widget Conglomerate and you’ll be a good cultural fit.”
Yet, culture is very much about attitude, thought and language, so it should fall under the communications functions of an organization. Chief marketing officers and heads of communications and messaging are the ultimate evangelists across all a company’s constituencies: customers, employees, partners and investors. As a result, they are closer to how a culture is perceived and should be fostered than executives in more administrative roles.
Don’t believe me? Then crack open your old Latin textbook (which never lies). The Latin verb communicare means to make something common, or to share. That is tied to a Latin noun, communis, which means something shared. That is the etymological root of the word “communications.” When we speak, we share. But it’s also the root of “community,” which is at the heart of culture. Even the ancient Romans knew you can’t have community without communications.
More and more, stewards of messaging within organizations need to have bigger roles in exploring and furthering corporate culture. Internal communications programs should be culture-focused. CMOs should see how external marketing and communications evangelizes culture. Crisis communications plans to take into account how a failure of culture can create reputational issues – a situation Uber finds itself wrestling with.
This is especially true with companies undergoing organizational change. In the case of Viacom, executives created the position because of a shift in corporate strategy, so it was, the company said, “absolutely critical that both our external stakeholders and our people understand and embrace our new vision for Viacom.”
And that is the key. Culture, like a brand, works two ways. It has to be embraced internally and then delivered and evangelized externally, but then it also needs to be accepted and understood by outside stakeholders. That’s beyond the reach of human resources execs or operating chiefs. That belongs with the stewards of the overall brand.