Over the past few weeks I’ve had several discussions with peers and clients about the optimal organization for a communication team. In past years, the focus of these discussions was often where communication should report to in the executive hierarchy – with HR and Marketing battling it out for ownership rights and a direct reporting line to the CEO being the ideal situation. The conversation has shifted in recent months due to the dramatic impact of social media on the communication function, with the focus now being on how to staff and organize the function in an era of technological and cultural upheaval. That is a good thing, since the old models have become too restrictive, if not irrelevant, in the Web 2.0 environment.

Communication teams usually consist of a mix of the following roles:

  • Staff responsible for specific business units, internal clients or regions
  • Channel or platform managers – for example intranet managers or publication editors
  • Functional experts – such as speech writing, web design and video production

There are pros and cons to giving different weights for each of these groups, and most communication functions seem to have a fairly equal blend of all three groups. But the larger issue now isn’t so much the perfect mix of talent as the reality that social media has totally changed the game.

The role of channel or platform managers, for example, is a tradition in many PR departments. But with the rapid evolution of technology – and the emergence of numerous plug-and-play platforms – it no longer makes sense to have staff who specialize in specific vehicles. The communication tool kit is no longer static – it’s dynamic. Platforms can change or disappear, and new ones can be added to the mix with limited investment or technology. For example, an organization could decide to launch an external blog and internal crowd-sourcing platform with little investment or IT support. It makes more sense to be platform-agnostic and to tailor the tools (and staff) to the specific situation and messages, and always be open to building a better mousetrap. The alternative is a department where inertia, tunnel vision and staff responsibilities become a barrier to change.

The topic of functional expertise also requires a new paradigm, where communication workers all have a working level of familiarity – if not expertise – with fundamental communication skills and technical knowledge. A one-trick pony – even a superb speech-writer for example – has limited value in today’s real-time and protean communication environment. Most important, all staff need to have solid understanding of technology – including video, social media applications and websites. I’ve seen too many communication teams that are totally dependent on one or two savvy individuals to execute basic communication activities – such as editing photos or updating web sites.  Writing remains a critical need, but even that is attenuated by the emergence of video, photo and audio as editorial features. This model doesn’t preclude expertise, but it does call for a higher level of broad knowhow across the team, and a re-definition of core communication skills.

Finally, there is still an important role for staff dedicated to a particular internal client, region or business unit. Their dedication and deep level of understanding helps to shape a relevant, customized communication program. But even here there is room for progress. For one thing, regional should ensure they are fully integrated and aligned with their broader team, since news and information often overlaps across several teams or regions. Furthermore, we’ve entered into an era of self-defined “communities” that don’t always mesh with corporate divisions or regions, so staff need to remain attuned to organic niches in their organization so they can tailor their outreach.

In summary, organizational models need to be more flexible and responsive, and staff need to become stronger tech-savvy generalists able to operate in a fluid environment. Stubborn allegiance to old titles or roles is a passport to irrelevance.