Corporate Communications: Leading from the fray

For the generation born in the 1980s and 90s, flexibility and creative freedom are near non-negotiables – two things corporate communications must learn in order to remain viable. A brief look at the Gen-Y effect on communications management.

The way we run corporate communications is undergoing a fundamental transformation, which most attribute to digitization. But there is another underlying factor: a discernible shift in values, not only within target audiences but among the communicators themselves. The next generation is coming of age and corporate communications, currently in the hands of Generation X-ers born in the 1960s and 70s, is slowly feeling the effects of Generation Y’s arrival.

Having grown up with the threat of the Cold War, Generation X oscillates between anxiety and ambition. Generation Y, on the other hand, is the beneficiary of a globalized world – children of the digital revolution. Indelibly marked by technological progress, this demographic sees life as a cornucopia of consumer and lifestyle choices – a perspective that obviously also makes the world more complex and “untidy”.

Internal acceptance

Experts have since transcended the all-too reductive formula “Generation X = Career-focused, Generation Y = Purpose-focused” in order to grasp Gen Y-ers’ expectations towards work and how these differences affect the workplace. The two generations share similar expectations when it comes to defining a good work environment, with one important difference according to a 2015 workplace satisfaction survey by the German opinion research institute dimap. Your average Gen Y-er wants a job that allows them to develop and pursue their own ideas, while Gen X places greater value on status, prestige and how their role is perceived by others.

Ulrike Röttger, a communications expert from the University of Münster, conducted an interesting deep-dive on Gen-Y expectations of communications management. The age-cohort study surveyed over 200 of her Gen-Y students in 2014 and also found that most differences are of the more subtle sort. For example, today’s young communicators do not show a preference for the traditionally popular media relations. Nor do they gravitate toward online communications, for some a surprising find given Gen Y’s affinity for online media. What interests them the most is actually internal communications directed at employees. Also, they care more about their team’s acceptance within the company than about budget or staff size.

New generation, new paradigm

The new generation of communicators is ushering in a new era in which PR work is less Tayloristic and process-driven. Instead, it is an integrative and project-oriented undertaking that includes innovative methods for working, such as scrum, design thinking and agile project management. Obviously that’s also supposed to leverage efficiency potential, but the approach per se articulates Gen Y’s general attitude towards life and work.

To remain viable in an increasingly volatile environment, corporate communications leaders are going to have to learn how to allow the flexibility and creative freedom Generation Y expects. This also means working in a more complex and “untidy” world: Projects can be spread across the team, the responsibility for project management and target achievement less so. Hierarchies are not entirely flat, but the paradigm is shifting. Managers can no longer remain mostly above the fray. They must increasingly lead from it.


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