Ragan CEO Diane Schwartz shares how to stop being an ‘order taker’

The comms leader spoke about learning to use the language of business to solidify the increased role comms pros have taken during the past year of crisis on the Business Communicators Podcast.


Over the past year, communicators have risen to new heights in many organizations. According to data from Ragan’s Communications Benchmark Report, the role of the communicator expanded dramatically in the last year of global crisis.

Yet, as the pandemic wanes and business look to return to some semblance of a pre-2020 “normal,” will communicators be able to keep their hard-won clout form the past year? The question was the focus of discussion on the season three finale of “The Business Communicators” podcast.

Ragan CEO Diane Schwartz joined the program to share her view on how communicators can make sure they stay in the room with top leaders and demonstrate the value of the communications function. Communicators are tired of being “order takers,” Schwartz said, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to earn that seat at the table.

“Communicators have been working really hard on the measurement side of the discipline,” she said, admitting that there often is not a direct line to revenue for comms activities. That makes conversations with senior management more difficult, she said.

However, communicators are not unaware of the measurement conundrum and many organizations are at work to provide frameworks and metrics to show the value of comms work. “We are seeing that happening now,” Schwartz said. “That’s the good news.”

And the events of 2020 have only accelerated those trends.

Are certifications the path?

In considering how to bolster the comms role in the organization, certifications offer some small benefits, Schwartz said. But they are not necessarily the answer for increasing your influence.

“One thing good about certification is that it requires continuing education,” she said. “There is no doubt that we should be lifelong learners. Beyond that, the best experience is to be had on the job, not getting letters after your name.”

Schwartz questions whether the senior executives take note of credentials when looking for PR leaders. If credentialing is going to help the industry as a whole, the organizations that offer them will have to do more education for top business leaders, she argues.

Addressing the biggest gap

Instead, Scwartz pointed to business fluency as the fastest path to improving communicators’ influence with top leaders and executive boards.

“Communicators need to speak the language of business,” she said. “Understand how to read a balance sheet.” Being able to understand the complex ways that organizations invest their capital and evaluate their performance will allow comms pros to show relevance and prove their impact.

“Follow the money,” says Scwartz. “Who are the players? Really understand the business goals of the organizations, the different units and how they all work together. That’s the language to learn.”

Once communicators can demonstrate their prowess with a financial statement, they are more likely to be invited into the room where big decisions get made.

Next five years

As for the trends Schwartz sees affecting communicators in the next five years, she identified the blurring of lines between marketing and communications, as well as departments like HR.

Workplace wellness is case in point, whose programs have struggled to show their value and impact despite great employee need. “The reason these programs fail is often because employees don’t know about them,” she said, which illustrates the lack of alignment between HR and comms.

And HR isn’t the only department Schwartz sees as an essential partner for communicators. “We need to know our IT colleagues a little better,” she said, looking at the rise of technology and its ability to tell stories to dispersed audiences.

In short, communicators must become jacks and jills of all trades, as well as fluent in the running of the business.

Communications Week

To address the many needs of communicators—and support essential lifelong learning—Schwartz pointed to Ragan’s newest brand, Communications Week, as the perfect vehicle to help to elevate the role of the communicator.

“We are really excited to now have Communications Week in our portfolio,” she said. “Since we cover all of communications, it gives us a global platform to help all communicators.

Communications Week will be held Nov. 15-19, 2021, as a hybrid model with one in-person gathering in New York City on Nov. 16. “It will be more of a networking event,” Schwartz said of the three-hour program, but noted the excitement for a return to in-person industry events. “We need to start gathering at some point.”

Communications Week will also feature a dozen industry partners offering programming around the theme of “transformation.”

“There’s a transformation we are all going through as citizens,” Schwartz said, “but there is also the transformative role of the communicator and how technology transforms how we communicate.” For communicators to build on their success and grow the industry’s reputation as strategic leaders, its ability to embrace and drive transformation will be at the very center of its argument.

Listen to the full podcast episode here.

Learn more about Communications Week at www.commsweek.com.



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