Communicators may flinch at the thought of control. But controlling, at least in the German-speaking world, does not primarily mean control, but a structured process of planning, goal setting and steering by measurement. This may offer communicators a lot of helpful insights. It is about basic principles of management. Instead of Communication Controlling one could also speak, just as correctly but less unwieldy, of Communication Management.
Since 2006, the term Communication Controlling has developed into a brand in Germany that brings communities together: communicators on the one hand and controllers on the other. The hyphenated spelling underlines the fact that two very different areas come together. The communicators understand relationship management and have had little to do with business administration in the past. (Today, business management topics are part of the training of communicators.) In contrast, communication must be explained to the business economists in the companies or in associations such as the International Controller Association using their business vocabulary – this is how the discipline was created.
The communications departments in a company think in terms of the history of events, from day to day. Communication Controlling can be used to make the process behind it visible to the manager, an iterative management cycle. This enables him or her to plan goals in a learning process, to redefine them again and again, to implement measures and, with the help of measurement methods and data collection, to show whether one has been successful, has achieved goals or perhaps even has to change the strategy.
“With the management discipline communication controlling, the controller makes the methods and processes transparent for the manager”. Dr. Reimer Stobbe
There is an interesting DIN specification, which is always upheld by the Controller Association ICV. Remarkable is the premise that rationality is in the foreground and opportunistic behaviour of the management should be prevented. This is a far cry from control, which means sustainable action; a discussion based on the division of labour in order to be able to work together in a target-oriented manner without one of us pulling out.
The ICV panel on Communication Controlling is concerned with using these methods, this management power, to provide the communications department with its instruments, with their goals, their campaigns. One can give communication management in the narrower sense instruments to control one’s own area. Or you can think big: it is the strategic task of the communications function in the company to manage the company’s relationship with its stakeholders. And this strategic task makes Communication Controlling controllable and visible.
How does it look in everyday practice when you let yourself be guided by measurement?
For example, I think about a really great landing page for a certain topic, for a target group, on the website. I think to myself: “They think that’s cool, that’s where they get in, here’s a podcast, they’ll love to hear it, and then they go from there to the sales page and click on the contact.” That’s the concept. Then I build the website, leave it as it is and wait to see if anything arrives at the end.
Or maybe I measure what happens: I use web analytics to see whether the people who come to the website really behave as expected. Then I can decide to rebuild the site so that people are picked up exactly how they obviously want to be. Based on the data that is collected and the report from the controller. That way I can verify my assumptions. If the users are doing something completely different, I can only know if I have the data for it.
This is a learning process. You have to be willing to completely question and change what you thought was so great as a concept at the beginning. That’s not so easy, because usually projects are linear: order, execution, relief and the job is finished. Here, however, one always wants to optimize in order to become better and better by means of data collection or in direct contact with target groups.
In other words, project managers are confronted with the fact that their project never ends because there is always optimization and repetition loops. It is a hurdle to introduce this way of thinking into communication functions. To do this, you need the willingness to admit that you have done things wrong and to stand by it. Opportunism as a career model will not get you very far. Sometimes it is also not possible in the companies concerned to say: “But we have moved in the wrong direction. Let’s correct our goal now.” Because mistakes can lead to accusations or fear of failure.
How common is communication controlling in today business world?
Today there are a lot of really good examples how communication controlling works and how it is applied in concrete business models. Both on the operational level – how do I manage a website or a communications department, for example – and company-wide. But often such models and methods are abolished again with a change of management. A communications department can do a lot on its own. However, in order to coordinate external relations within the company, cooperation with those responsible throughout the company is necessary. This is difficult, and we have seen examples where people have already gone a long way and then the clocks have been turned back again.
It takes at least a year to get from zero measurement to the first target values. The challenge is to keep up the staying power, which is becoming less and less common in organizations and companies. Opportunism in management does not fit into a controlling process that thinks in long cycles. The person responsible for communication must manage to keep the dialogue with the management levels going so that they continue to support controlling. This requires the right agreements.
“Actually, that’s something really great for a manager to be able to keep his or her business together by means of clear agreements and measurable goals.” Dr. Reimer Stobbe
But to endure the transparency you have to stand with both feet firmly on the ground. These people exist in all implementation stages. There are communication managers in leading positions who can take this very well and who have organized a comprehensive communication controlling. In the same way, there are companies where communications controlling already provides important information, even if not everything has been implemented yet. And there are also companies that are just at the very beginning of implementation.
The possibility to measure and collect key figures is well known in nowaday’s companies. The challenge is to turn it into a management model and not simply into a justification tool for results and figures. That would be too little.
Does measurement work without targets set by top management?
A differentiated measurement is difficult if there are no target agreements from top management. Nevertheless, as a communications manager you can work consistently with objectives in a section of an organisation and ensure a learning cycle through measurement. In order to tie in with the company’s goals, however, you need contact with the larger corporate framework. The starting points are not only profit figures but also goals that explicitly have something to do with the communications business. Reputation management, for example, is a strategic function at the level of the entire company. If there are clear goals, communication controlling has a very good chance to work.
What skills do you need?
You don’t have to be a superman to introduce communications controlling in a meaningful way and to hold out. You need the competence to give good advice, to explain what the benefits can be. You need specialist knowledge on the subject of analytics. You need to be good with metrics and the many different systems. And you need IT competence to technically implement what you promise. All this certainly speaks more for a team than for an individual.
You need expertise from both disciplines: the controller, who should make this foreign business communication visible in the world of the company through his key figures. And the communicator, who sees controlling more as budget control. The challenge is to turn these competencies into a joint team.
Where can you get help and dive into the subject?
The Panel on Communication Controlling offers a set of methods that can also be used in a modular way. This is a tool for getting started, but also for keeping up communication controlling. The starter kit for designing and implementing a controlling system for corporate communications has been available since 2016. It also explains our impact level model. We have thus built a bridge between the thinking of social scientists in communications and business economists in controlling. You can read up on it and of course also contact the experts. You can also attend seminars, depending on what you actually need.
Who needs what information?
Communication management is the management of internal and external communication processes in a company, oriented towards corporate goals. For this, you have to integrate many disciplines. Communicator, controlling and IT have to sift through which data is already available in the company and which indicators. They must work out how communication processes are perceived and how communication offers are accepted.
You need someone who thinks through and accompanies the whole thing methodically and conceptually. In addition, someone who ensures that data is available through tracking, data collection or surveys. Finally, the results have to go to the right management level, which requires the commitment of the organization. For the communicator, this means that the data material is used to provide those responsible for the website with a report or even an analytics tool for their insights into the performance of their specific communication channel. The same applies to social media – the respective channel managers naturally receive completely different instruments and also reports or dashboards than the level above. Perhaps there are also those who are responsible for a complete communication campaign with many different channels. Above all, they receive information on the achievement of objectives already at the campaign level.
And then there’s the head of communications or the head of communications, they want something like a performance report. That’s almost the most difficult part, because so many things come together. The top management report actually only needs goals and a KPI for each goal, then that’s enough for this target group.
It’s a whole landscape of different participants with different responsibilities and competencies. At first glance a lot of work, if you were used to simply making nice campaigns and enjoying them.
Three minutes, three arguments to explain communication controlling to the CEO in the elevator:
- A CEO gets complete transparency in the shortest possible time: what goals are actually being pursued and achieved – by what means and with what resources.
- In addition, he or she is given a guide on how to use communication resources strategically for the success of the company. Using methods that have been tried and tested in practice for years, it is possible to ensure that the communications department really helps the company’s success.
- With the instruments of communications controlling, he can also recognize in time if there are any difficulties with stakeholders of the company.
Finally: How to begin?
Before you talk to the CEO, you should first get the communications managers on board. People are important success factors, as are the mood, personal sensitivities and relationships within the company. Just like when you start a new job, the first thing you should do is listen carefully to who the clients are and where their interests lie.
If you try to control communication through knowledge from outside, i.e. through consulting it is very important to have a good contact person in the company who knows what makes the business tick. It is advisable to look for cooperation partners first and after potential pilot projects. Measuring a communication campaign completely up to its targets is often easier than taking up complex corporate issues. Especially in marketing communication it is often easier to work out the business relevance.
If you want to start with communication controlling, you are welcome to contact the community for communication controlling in the professional circles. Especially if you are alone in your company with this topic, it is important to get into conversation with others about it.
Or you can continue listening here to Measurement Mashup, the podcast for Data Driven Decisions in Communication. We look forward to the exchange.
Reimer Stobbe works in marketing communications for Group Communications at Munich Re. Since 1999 he has held various positions in communications, including head of internal communications and communications controlling. He has also been responsible for numerous communications projects, such as the introduction of a group-wide mission statement, staff surveys and dialogue communication in marketing. With a doctorate in history and a degree in controlling, he has headed the Communications Controlling specialist group within the International Controller Association (ICV) since 2006 and has further developed methods and industry standards on this topic in the DPRG working group “Value Creation through Communication”. He is also a lecturer at Quadriga University Berlin.