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A Seat at the Table – Event Recap

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Photo of Priya Bates

By Sonia Hota

On March 26, IABC fellow and communications professional Priya Bates sat down with members of the IABC London community. Her goal was to share her experiences and advice on how to get “a seat at the table,” with senior leaders and decision-makers in organizations. The impetus for the event grew out of conversations between IABC London Chapter President Anthea Rowe and Bates, about the need for communications professionals to better advocate for themselves to be included as strategic business partners, as opposed to merely tactical employees.

A Longstanding Problem

Bates began the evening  by sharing how she got into the field of communications, after having graduated from Western University with a degree in Neuropsychology and, later from the communications program at Humber College. As a communications professional, Bates was very involved in IABC, and recalls a time when, as IABC Toronto Chapter President 15 years ago, the board had the very same discussion about how to get a seat at the table.

“It’s sad that, fifteen years later, we are still having the conversation,” Bates notes.

According to a 2008 Forbes study, of 160 leaders surveyed, ninety percent of CEOs recognized the importance of communications in strategic planning. The study listed a number of strategic initiatives that many communications professionals may find daunting to consider.

“There was knowledge even back then that communications is the gap that exists when companies are struggling,” Bates claims.

She admits to being fortunate enough to have had worked at companies, such as HP-Compaq and Loblaws, which allowed her to take risks and try new things. During a restructure at Loblaws, Bates was aware of upcoming changes six months prior to layoffs, and was part of that decision-making process over a period of five years. She was also instrumental in getting Loblaws on the list of the top 100 best places to work, for the past eight years.

Bates assisted with the communications strategy during Gordon Food Service Company’s divestment operations, and also sat at the “cleanroom” table during the impending merger of the HP and Compaq companies.  

“I feel proud I was able to help Compaq Canada make its best quarterly results, and its best ever annual results. That’s the power of communications,” Bates states.

Changing from the Inside Out

Twelve years later, Bates led the IABC international task force on rebranding, which included creating IABC values and connecting what communicators do for the business. Bates adhered to this principle when starting her own consulting business in 2014, Inner Strength Communication, which focuses on internal communications. She notes that her work advising leadership on where they need to invest for communications success, has revealed that many leaders start with tactics instead of with a strategy in mind. As a result, she has seen many communicators reluctant to part with their tactical roles in favour of strategic ones.

Bates also noted that the lines between external and internal communications are blurring, and many companies are now investing in internal communications. The demand for knowledge of internal communications is so great that there are conferences devoted solely to internal communications.

“People need to realize they need to make a difference from the inside out,” Bates states. “We need to focus on opening the doors. Having a seat at the table means being connected to the outside, having an open-door policy, trust, and transparency.”

Changes need to happen individually, where communicators need to feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zones and doing things differently. Obtaining a communications certification is helpful in allowing communications professionals to be seen as experts, and dispelling any notions that anyone can do communications. Bates also encourages communications professionals to make a case to have professional development costs covered by companies. Commitment to learning the business is critical to being accepted and sought out as part of the company’s planning process, and Bates suggests visiting employees in the various departments to learn what they do and how they think.

“Understanding your business from a people’s point of view is gold,” Bates claims.

The Five I’s of  Internal Communications

Bates also stressed the need to change the conversation, to stress the importance of internal communications, and shared her mantra for internal communications: implementation,  interaction, integration, influence and impact. According to Bates, many communicators spend too much time on the implementation of tactics and not enough time strategizing. Asking questions to determine the reasons behind the ask, and being comfortable saying “no” when a task does not create value for the business are important steps for communicators.

When crafting messages for internal publics, communicators must connect with employees and other parties, to understand how they think and how they act. In this way, interaction allows the communicator to best represent the internal publics’ interests. Building strong relationships with executive assistants and other supporting staff is another way to keep abreast of internal activity and attitudes.

Integration, the third principle, refers to the importance of having the tools to deliver promised results. Having the knowledge and understanding of business initiatives allows communicators to become involved in decision-making. Bates’ fourth principle, influence, relates to the mistaken belief communicators have that their role is to communicate on behalf of the business.

“Our biggest power and biggest opportunity is to influence how our leaders, our people in our organizations, communicate,” Bates states.

Showing the results of their strategic planning allows communicators to make a strong impact on the business and its employees and leaders. As part of the planning process, having the communications infrastructure in place to deal with potential crises is essential to ensuring a smooth transition when implementing changes to the business.

A United Effort

Regardless the level of work experience among communications professionals, common ground lay in the need for a united effort towards proving the value of communicators as strategists to business leaders. Bates’ workshop, “A Seat at the Table,” heralds the start to an exciting journey for communicators and business leaders alike, as they progress toward a stronger understanding of each other and a stronger future for communications as a profession.

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