Orchestration of Communication


Communications Professional's Role in the Orchestration of Communication during a Change Process

1. Introduction

Nowadays, as the business world becomes more competitive, the technology more advanced and innovated, and an organization's stakeholders more sophisticated, a high degree of organizational adaptability to change is strongly advocated so that an organization is less likely to lag behind and is hopefully to achieve better performance.

This paper focuses on the role of communications professional in the orchestration of all forms of communications during a change process and providing general guidelines which communications professional can adopt to better orchestrate communication effectively when change occurs within organizations, for the overall purpose of achieving a competitive advantage and to improve organization performance.

First, brief explanation about the core concept “orchestration of communication” will be unveiled, followed by the identification of three stages of change process including “unfreezing”, “moving” and “refreezing” based on Lewin's three-step theory. Then relevant specific issues in each stage will be identified with demonstration of appropriate examples so as to further illustrate what communications professionals need to deal with and how to handle those issues, especially risks and threats accompanied with change. And a brief summary of main arguments stated will be presented in the end.

2. Orchestration of Communication

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Cees B.M. van Riel (1995, p.18-21) has stated the importance of “Orchestration of all forms of corporate communication through common starting points” in accomplishing effective communication and eventually the overall organization performance, and further explained that “common starting points” are the core values which any forms of communication within an organization are based on and they will vary according to different companies since the organization's actual and desired identity and image need to be taken into consideration. He (2000, p.157-81) further argues that a sustainable corporate story is strongly recommended for functioning as an effective approach to improve quality of orchestration of communications between an organization and its wide variety of stakeholder groups, provided four criteria (relevant, realistic, sustainable and responsive) are met.

Mike Wallace (2007) has defined orchestration as “coordinated activity within set parameters expressed by a network of senior leaders at different administrative levels to instigate, organize, oversee and consolidate complex change across part or all of multi-organizational system” and emphasized the importance of coherence in the orchestration of communication during a change process particularly in the public services.

Based on Van Riel's work, Geller (2009) further explains the orchestra metaphor in that during a merger (one form of change) “musicians” are internal stakeholders, “composer (the dominant group)” is the one who writes the strategy, “conductor” represents the communication professional whose responsibility is to keep all musicians presenting a symphony harmoniously, and “audiences” are external stakeholders. Nevertheless, defining the role of communication professional only as “conductor”, from my perspective, devalues the communication professional during a change process, therefore detailed discussion and argument will be demonstrated in the following part.

3. The Role of Communications Professional in the Orchestration of Communication in a Change Process

Whether a change can be successfully implemented and further rooted within organization often rely heavily on communication during the change process (Cornelissen, 2003, p.201), which indicates the necessity and importance of effective orchestrated communication.

Based on the orchestration metaphor, the role of communications professional can be categorized as either “composer” or “conductor” during a change process. This part will begin with identifying the three stages of a change and then discuss the role of communications professional and the main tasks which they need to handle with, and further to provide suggestions on how to deal with the relevant issues accompanied with a change, so as to achieve effective orchestration of all forms of communications among all stakeholders and ultimately to enhance organization performance.

There are various kinds of definitions about the stages of change, according to Lewin (1958), the stages of change can be classified as “unfreezing (the present state of an organization)”, “moving (to a new state)” and ”refreezing (the new state)”. Compared with Lewin's model, punctuated equilibrium theory can be considered as a more appropriate model of change process which is developed by Gersick (1991), Miller and Friesen (1980), and Tushman and Romanelli (1985). Tushman and Romanelli (1985, p.171) explain the theory as “organizations evolve through relatively long periods of stability (equilibrium periods) in their basic patterns of activity that are punctuated by relatively short bursts of fundamental change (revolutionary periods)”, which more concentrates on constant change occurring within organization from my understanding. Here in order to clearly identify relevant issues of change in each stage and the role of communications professional in orchestration of overall communications in each phase accordingly, the classical model of Lewin's three-step theory will be adopted because it can explain both evolutionary and revolutionary change more suitably and reasonably, additionally, as an extended version of Lewin's model, Lippitt's phases of change theory (1958, see Appendix) which focuses on the role of a change agent will be modified accordingly and combined as a basis as well.

3.1 The Role of Communications Professional in the Orchestration of Communication in “Unfreezing” Process – Composer

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The initial phase of a change process involves unfreezing a current state within an organization. As a communication professional, three steps are chosen from Lippitt's phases of change theory and adjusted based on the specific responsibility of a communication professional to achieve effective orchestration of communications: diagnose the problems which might occur in change, evaluate the motivation and capability for change especially among internal stakeholders and compose the communication strategy with senior management.

And in all of the three steps a communication professional should make sure that stakeholder management is underlined as the cornerstone of orchestrated communication. Furthermore, when considering all stakeholder groups, communication professional needs to define which stakeholder groups are the dominant ones and set priorities according to the stakeholder salience model which includes three elements: power, legitimacy and urgency (Cornelissen, 2003). Additionally, it is strongly recommended to communications professional that the in-depth understanding of organizational “inertia, content, tenacity and interdependency” (Weick and Quinn, 1999) is prerequisite for better understanding organizational change, which can be beneficial for better developing a communication strategy before implementing a change.

Undoubtedly, change might unleash emotions of stakeholders and stimulate learning (Antonacopoulou and Gabriel, 2001). Nonetheless, in unfreezing process, it is often the case that stakeholders do not always welcome change, especially employees who often resent and resist a change not because of change itself but of the feeling of uncertainty (Cornelissen, 2003, p.207), which would result in a wide variety of problems such as low commitment to the job or rumors among employees. Existing studies (Shapiro and Kirkman, 1999; Folger and Skarlicki, 1999) have focused on the potential effects that a change could influence on employees' negative feelings particularly resistance due to the anticipatory injustice. Therefore a communication professional shoulders the responsibility of diagnosing these potential problems accompanied with a change. Both qualitative techniques such as focus groups and quantitative techniques like questionnaires can be employed to explore and identify potential barriers and risks caused by change. For instance, employee attitude surveys can be conducted to evaluate internal motivation and capability for change (Schneider et al., 1996) which can be considered as a resource to predict how well internal stakeholders can handle the change and further to assist communications professional to compose a well-designed and feasible communication project.

Having collected the overall information and feedback from stakeholders especially employees, a communication professional with the broad information and in-depth knowledge can compose detailed communication plans to tailor to different stakeholders for the purpose of orchestrating all forms of communication. Therefore, in this stage it is strongly recommended that a communication professional had better shoulder the responsibility of developing communication strategy as a composer rather than only being the conductor.

However, it is often the case that communications professional generally and traditionally is perceived as facilitators whose job is to provide assistance during the change process rather than as a composer who shoulders the responsibility of developing a communication strategy. The following will take the international pharmaceutical corporation Astrazeneca as an example to illustrate the sad phenomenon. Recently, Astrazeneca is planning a restructure mainly aiming to downsize (revolutionary change), which will undoubtedly result in laying off employees worldwide. After the brief introduction about the restructure and a short conversation with Amanda who is one of the communication professionals about her role and her major tasks in this change process, it is disappointing to realize that she shoulders the responsibility mainly as a “conductor” whose job is to carry out the strategy developed by top management instead of participating in the decision-making process, and to keep every department and each member of Astrazeneca international group aware of the change. From my perspective, it would be much better and beneficial for the organization if a communication professional at least has access to co-compose the strategy when the organization plans to initiate a revolutionary change such as a major restructure in this case in that a competent communication professional has insight into the effective integration of all forms of communications which is extremely important in the later change process since informing the change to all stakeholder groups is unavoidable. Besides, the message delivered to all stakeholders should be coherent and consistent, which can be better managed by communication professional rather than several managers from different departments because they naturally tend to perceive their own departmental interests as priority instead of the organization's overall strategic interest (Van Riel, 2000).

3.2 The Role of Communications Professional in the Orchestration of Communication in “Moving” Process – Composer and Conductor

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The transition to the new state involves a series of implication of the change in the day-to-day practices or might even disrupt the deep structure of an organization (if the change is revolutionary), and especially during this stage, certain practical issues both predictable and unpredictable will arise. Having been derived and refined from Lippitt's phases of change theory, two steps need to be addressed to better orchestrate the overall communication between an organization and its stakeholders in transition phase of a change process: make sure that the purpose and message of change are understood consistently among all stakeholders, and observe practical problems and engage relevant stakeholders in order to refine the previous communication plans accordingly.

The first and foremost task for communications professional is to assure that the main goal and all the information of a change are delivered to, shared and understood clearly in the same way among all stakeholders. de Geus (1997), Macrae (1996) and Shrivastava (1995) states the necessity and essentiality for an organization to communicate with all its stakeholders according to a holistic policy. And during the implementation stage of change, it seems even more important in that change is likely to generate confusion, rumours and even chaos among stakeholders if the main purpose and the relevant messages of change are not claimed and informed clearly and consistently. Therefore, orchestration of all forms of communication are highly demanded and undoubtedly the communications professional should shoulder this responsibility as a conductor to inform musicians and audience what the show is and meantime to keep all the musicians playing their own instruments well so that the orchestrated symphony is harmonically presented and can achieve a great success in the end. Here sense making in organizations can be an effective approach which includes two steps: scanning and interpreting, to make sure that there is a common understanding of an organization's core values and objectives, otherwise superior performance is hard to be accomplished (Weich, 1995).

However, walking the talk is much more complex and difficult than merely talking because as the organizational boundaries become less clear both internally and externally nowadays, once change happens in one part of an organization it will mostly generate certain effects on others, which can be called “co-evolutionary change” (Jackson, 2006, p.256). A communication professional needs to take all the linkages and interdependency existing among individuals, teams and departments within an organization when managing emergent change (Yeow and Jackson, 2006), and the intensely tight interdependency between internal and external world needs considering as well. Otherwise, incoherent and contradictory messages are more likely to be delivered to both internal and external stakeholders, which would possibly lead to negative and inconsistent image among its stakeholders. Take the tobacco company BAT for instance, it presented its glamorous financial performance and redundancy of 123 staff in the same newspaper in the same day (Van Riel, 1995, p.5), which would probably generate a contradictory and negative impression about the company among both internal and external stakeholders, especially employees and customers in this case, who would be less likely to trust the company, let alone support it. From this big mistake, it is noted that specialists in different departments such as employee communication, press relations, marketing communication, investor relations within an organization particularly big corporation are not fully capable of generating and delivering coherent or consistent communication messages (Van Riel, 2000). One explanation for this is that different departments instinctively tend to focus on their own interests rather than the overall benefits of the organization as mentioned already. In order to eliminate the potential risk of delivering confused or contradictory messages particularly during the transition stage, communications professional need to integrate and orchestrate all forms of communication (Nowak and Phelps 1994; Schultz et al. 1994). And in terms of orchestration of the relevant message of a change, certain approaches can be employed to achieve the coherence and consistency. For instance, visual coherence can be realized through house-style guidelines (Olins, 1989). Furthermore, in a broad sense, the organization's overall communication can be orchestrated by applying common starting points, cooperative structures for communication decision-making and common operational systems (van Riel, 1997) during this stage of change process.

In addition, in the transition stage communications professional needs to carefully observe and supervise the whole change process so as to identify practical problems, and closely engage relevant stakeholders as well to collect all the feedback and resources available, so that the previous communication plans can be refined and recomposed accordingly. In this phase, group coordination, frequent and continual communication, and feedback from relevant stakeholder groups are the essential factors (Lippitt, 1958).

Actually, an organization which equips itself with high stakeholder management capability often engage multiple stakeholder groups in designing and implementing communication processes (Freeman, 1984, p.78), and such organization explicitly involves stakeholders and negotiates with them on critical issues (Van Riel, 2000, p.160), which can be considered as a extremely beneficial approach during the transition stage.

3.3 The Role of Communications Professional in the Orchestration of Communication in “Refreezing” Process – Composer and Conductor

Refreezing stage of a change involves integrating the change into the organizational culture, which requires communications professional to monitor continuously and to communicate both internally and externally so as to make sure that the change can be reinforced and the integration of change into organizational culture can be perfected as well. In doing so, communications professional have to shoulder the responsibility as a conductor who keeps each individual instrument player presenting a symphony not only harmonically but also routinely altogether, which can eventually generate an competitive advantage and achieve a better financial performance. Cobweb approach can be employed every certain period to measure whether there is a gap between the desired effect which the change is expected to generate and the actual circumstance which the change have already shaped, based on which specific communication programmes can be initiated by communications professional accordingly.

In the meantime, communications professionals should consider themselves as composers as well for the reason that in today's highly competitive and unpredictable world, any organization should prepare themselves for constant change (Drucker, 1993; Weick and Qyinn, 1999), thus requiring communications professional continuously to pay attention to both internal and external needs and pressure which encourage an organization to change. As a composer, communications professional had better communicate and engage stakeholder groups on an ongoing basis, taking their feedbacks and opinions into consideration to prepare a mature and well-developed communication strategy for further change so that the organization have the capability to keep up with the preference of audience and satisfy their needs.

4. Conclusion

Studies from various perspectives have acknowledged the need for employing holistic and integrative approaches in managing change (Worren, Ruddle and Moore, 1999), which further emphasizes the significance of communication orchestration. According to Jackson (2010), the role of communications professional is to effectively orchestrate all forms of corporate communication so as to accomplish a competitive advantage in the fast-changing and highly turbulent business world nowadays, in the meantime to keep reconfiguring the internal resources when confronting changes.

Having realized the necessity and importance of change, and based on what has been illustrated above, it can be concluded that in a broad sense, the role of communications professional is both a composer and a conductor for the reason that they not only command the whole communication projects and keep players putting on a show harmonically but should also be included in the senior strategic management to develop the communication strategy in the first place to emphasize the essentiality and significance of orchestrated communication especially during a change. Nevertheless, it is sad reality that organizations usually consider the role of communications professionals as coordination and supervision of various communication programmes instead of composing the strategy along with senior management (van Riel, 1997, p.304). Therefore, the first and foremost thing is demanded to be done urgently is for senior management to fully recognize both the key role of communications professional and orchestrated communication played in determining whether an organization can successfully implement a change to accomplish a magnificent financial performance.

However, depending on varied forms of change and different organizations, communications professionals had better prepare themselves to shoulder different responsibilities and to develop specific strategy which can be tailored to deal with a wide variety of problems accompanied by change, which is not allowed to state in detail due to the space and time constraint in this study.