Excellent Communication Departments

Ansgar Zerfass

One out of five communication functions in European organizations can be considered excellent. Norwegian communication executives, however, are modest in their view of their influence and performance.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Communication for leaders

More than 2,700 communication professionals across Europe agree that excellent communication functions are not simply better at communication, they are communicatively different.

The vast majority of corporate leaders understand that communication is key for organisational success. Nevertheless, many companies still struggle to organize strategic communication in a proper way. Creativity as well as capabilities to frame messages, address stakeholders and run campaigns are essential in a 24/7 media environment.

Key for success

But competitive advantage can only be gained by establishing governance structures and processes that outperform others. Identifying patterns of excellence in this field helps leaders to use the full potential of strategic communication.

In the past, practitioners’ experiences and normative theories like the influential Excellence Theory by Grunig et al. (1992) have guided discussions about patterns of success in communication management.

These approaches derive standards from theory or hearsay and use empirical research to assess actual organisations. However, in practice excellence is usually a matter of being better than other organisations, i.e. competitors, not of adhering to inherent standards.

Therefore management scholars have used benchmarking approaches based on self-assessments to identify characteristics of excellent organisations bottom-up instead of top-down. This requires large samples as well as research instruments and questions based on previous insights and results.

Monitoring Communication in Europe

The European Communication Monitor 2014, the leading and most comprehensive analysis of the European market, is one such survey. It identifies excellent communication departments and asks for differences between those and “normal” departments.

Excellence is based on the internal standing of the communication function within the organisation (influence) and external results of the communication function’s activities as well as the function’s basic qualifications (performance). Each of these two components were calculated on the basis of two dimensions; the first on advisory influence and executive influence, and the second on overall communication success and department competence.

One out of five considered excellent

Only organisations clearly outperforming in all four dimensions are considered as excellent in the benchmark exercise. 2,777 communication professionals from 42 European countries participated in the survey in spring 2014.  There were 130 respondents from Norway.

The analysis revealed that approximately one out of five communication functions in the sample can be considered excellent (21.2 per cent answering 6-7 on a 7-point scale). The highest proportion was found in joint stock organisations (24.9 per cent), whereas excellence is less prevalent in government-owned, public sector and political organisations (16.0 per cent).

Significant differences

There are statistically significant differences between excellent and normal communication functions. Excellent communication functions have stronger alignment with top management, as the head of communication is more often part of the executive board or reports directly to the CEO. In excellent departments, 81.1 per cent of the professionals act as strategic facilitators who plan and execute communications, but at the same time help to define new business strategies – compared to 52.7 per cent in other organisations.

Excellent functions also have different priorities. They are less concerned with linking business strategy and communication, as many have probably established routines for alignment. However, they are more involved with corporate social responsibility and CEO positioning. Practitioners working in excellent departments are better prepared to know how to deal with new technologies, but they also report more work pressure. There is more overtime in excellent functions, but practitioners experience higher levels of job satisfaction. There is also a significantly higher level of gender equality in organisations with an excellent communication function.

Succesful communication in Norway?

The Norwegian respondents were somewhat modest in their view of their influence and performance.  On the 7-point scale they rated their senior managers only 5.5 as taking the recommendations of the communication function seriously. They were also not very positive in their belief that the communication of their organization was successful, rating this an average of 4.95.

They were slightly more positive on their likelihood of being invited to senior-level meetings dealing with organizational strategic planning (5.68 on the 7-point scale).  And they rated their own function as only slightly higher than average when compared to other organizations (5.0).

The results indicate that there are differences between excellent and “ normal” communication functions in Europe not only in technical proficiency of performing communication, but also regarding worldviews. Strategic communication is more than a craft (Holtzhausen & Zerfass, 2015).

Corporate leaders can be supportive by establishing flexible, but powerful structures for communication along with hiring communicators with a broad understanding of their professional role. The results for Norway also indicate that there is a great deal more research to do.


Grunig, J. E. (Ed.) (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Holtzhausen, D., & Zerfass, A. (Eds.) (2015). Routledge Handbook of Strategic Communication. New York, NY: Routledge.

Zerfass, A., Tench, R., Verčič, D., Verhoeven, P., & Moreno, A. (2014). European Communication Monitor 2014. Excellence in Strategic Communication – Key Issues, Leadership, Gender and Mobile Media. Results of a Survey in 42 Countries. Brussels: EACD/EUPRERA, Helios Media (available at www.communicationmonitor.eu)

This article is published in Communication for Leaders 2014/2015 (Link to E-Magazine).
Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 21. January 2015

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