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Australian Government,  Blog post,  Communications professional

Communications operating model: How to structure your communication team

It is the ultimate conundrum in communications – Do we have the right operating model? It is an issue that comes up for communications teams every few years. Is there another way to offer our services? How is everyone else doing it? Should we change how we are structured?

There are two elements when thinking of how to structure your communications team – your operating model or how you offer services to the business, and how you are structured to deliver those services.

Having a clearly defined operating model helps you determine your priorities, what skills and capacity you need, and how you will position your team within the organisation.

I thought I would go through three of the main models based on my experience working with a range of government departments. Sorry this is a long article, but I thought you might find it useful!

Centralised

Within a centralised model, all communications is done by a communications team that usually sits within corporate services. This team will do it all, plan, write, design and deliver communications. This team is how communications gets done in an organisation.

These teams are normally larger, due to the workload, and are most successful when they have high-performing self-starters who drive the work. The team normally offers a range of services in addition to internal and external communications, including design, digital, event planning – some of which they do themselves, others they manage external suppliers.

In my experience, there are two main ways that you can offer services in a centralised model – an account management model or a service-based model.

An account management model is where you have a person or team that is the primary contact for a business area. This person builds relationships with a business area, an understanding of their priorities and their content. They act as a conduit into the rest of the communication teams, becoming a ‘one-stop shop’ so that the business area doesn’t need to know who to contact. In a survey I recently ran on LinkedIn, around 30 per cent of communication teams are using this type of model

In a service-based or functional model, support is not provided to a specific business line but as needed or priority based. Often within this model teams are structured based on communications functions (digital, design, content etc). In the LinkedIn survey, around 70 per cent of people report using this model, or a mixed account management/service model.

The risk with the centralised model is you don’t always create a deep understanding within the business of what you do or the effort it takes to create great communications. Teams may come under attack for being too big and the “what do they even do anyway?” mentality.

A great resource for this model: GOV UK Communications Service Modern Communications Operating Model.

Self-service

Self-service is a hybrid model and one I have seen more commonly in the Australian Government.

Often, as a result of a lack of resources, these teams can only do so much on their own but have responsibility to maintain the brand and corporate narrative. To do this, they must train, engage and support the rest of the organisation to develop communications like they would (or at least as close as possible). They develop training, guides and templates to support consistency and efficient delivery. The teams’ role is to manage the organisations brand, support the business, and empower staff to do it themselves. 

Teams that operate under this model provide a smaller range of services to the business. It is best to determine where your effort will be expended to ensure you can be consistent in your service delivery across the team (example below).

In-house deliverySupported servicesSelf-Service
20% of our time is spent on large projects aligned to the organisational goals or at the request of the CEO/Secretary.  

The communications team develops a plan and delivers activities.
30% of our time is spent on important or high-risk projects requiring some help to get started.  

The communications team develops a strategy/plan. The business area delivers activities.
50% of our time is spent on developing tools and training to support the business.  

The communications team provide advice but are hands-off. The business area delivers all communications activities.

The key to this model is building strong relationships with people in business and taking them on the journey to understand why they need to do it the “corporate way”.

This model can be frustrating as business areas continue to send you factsheets, not on the right template and media releases that are terribly written. Ultimately, it will be about picking your battles, training and retraining.

The risk with this model is that if business areas think it is too hard, or they don’t feel like they are getting the support they need (and have the money) they will hire their own communications staff, which is where you start moving to the final model.

Decentralised

It feels like as communications teams are de-funded, this model is becoming more and more common, especially in larger departments. It is not my preferred model as I believe communications professionals working together will always get a better outcome, but there are times when you don’t get a choice.

The decentralised model is where you have a smaller, core group of communications staff that deliver what is needed to satisfy the needs of the Minister’s office or the Secretary. Often services are focused on media management and internal communications. All other communications staff work within the business on their own or in small teams.

Business areas engage their own communications staff and deliver a bulk of strategy, planning and delivery. This does provide more control for business areas to hire or contract the right skills and capability to meet specific needs. Big internal change project? Hire an internal communications specialist. Always updating the website? Engage an APS5 content writer. It provides for more freedom and more dedicated support.

This model’s risk is that there is inconsistent brands, approaches and narratives across the department. New channels pop up and have limited controls to ensure they are managed consistently and maintained over time.

When to change?

In larger departments, new operating models are often thrust upon you. These changes can be cyclical. Budget cuts or restructures lead to a reduction of central communications professionals. The resulting lack of service leads business areas to hire their own communications staff. Executive get frustrated at the lack of coordination, or there is a significant reputational blunder, and the decentralised staff get restructured into a single centralised function. And so the cycle begins again.

Whether you are in this cycle or just assessing your current approach, I would encourage you to stop. Despite me providing three of the most common models, there is no one size fits all. Just because everyone else is moving to an account management model or the portfolio has other self-service model teams doesn’t mean that is right for your organisation. You need to talk to the Executive and find out what they need from the team. Talk to the staff find out what is working and what isn’t. You may need a bespoke approach to get the best service mix to meet your organisation’s expectations.

Need some help? I run service reviews for Communications Teams. With decades of experience running communication services, I can help you find the best way to set your team up for success. Get in touch.

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