December 01, 2003

Los Angeles — Pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal and odds are that you'll find a front-page story of a troubled company grappling with a highly public crisis. Now ask yourself: Could that situation have been alleviated-or even avoided completely-if executives in the corporation had practiced effective communication? How can companies build a systematic, successful approach to corporate communication? How can they present themselves effectively to their significant stakeholders?

Someone who well knows the answers to these questions is Dr. Janis Forman, adjunct professor of management and founder and director of the management communication program at UCLA Anderson School of Management. In her book, The Power of Corporate Communication: Crafting the Voice and Image of Your Business (McGraw-Hill, 2002; co-authored with Paul Argenti, professor of management and corporate communication at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business), Dr. Forman considers strategies companies should use when communicating with their key stakeholders: analysts, investors, employees, the government and local communities. The book also redresses the imbalance between the importance of corporate communication and its relative neglect in organizations and business school education.

Unlike other guides that theorize possibilities for ethical scandals, intense competition and unexpected crises, the authors use real life examples that exhibit our challenging times. They reveal how communication strategies can rebuild the internal and external trust so stained by corporate scandals like Enron and WorldCom. They explore corporate branding in competitive business environments such as Colgate-Palmolive and RCN; Chapter 6 explains how strategic employee communication may help achieve significant organizational change outcomes. Lastly, Forman and Argenti tell how organizations should communicate when they fail to "expect the unexpected" (page 235). In the face of crises such as the Ford Motor Company/Firestone tire problems, Pepsico's syringe crisis and the tragedies of September 11, Chapter 10 teaches readers how crisis communication differs from other forms, and offers eight "how to deal" steps.

The Association for Business Communication (ABC), an international organization committed to fostering excellence in business communication scholarship, research, education and practice, recently honored Forman and Argenti for The Power of Corporate Communication, which received the 2003 ABC Award for Distinguished Publication on Business Communication. This award is presented annually to an outstanding book, book chapter or journal article that demonstrates originality of thought and careful investigation, that is well written, lucid and engaging, and that contributes significantly to scholarship, research and/or pedagogy. This year, the ABC convention specifically focused on "Communication and Ethics." As The Power of Corporate Communication separates moral, neutral communication and ethical choices (page 35) and asks: "Will your company 'walk the talk' or just talk in a way that masks the truth?," there is little wonder why the Association for Business Communication values Forman and Argenti's scholarly efforts.

Academic shelves are filled with anecdotal tomes and "how to" books in management communication, but there is a serious lack of work actually being done in the area. Forman and Argenti's book combats this dearth of scholarly research. Their efforts focus on the best practices of some of the nation's most successful corporate communication programs, including those at Dell Computer, Federal Express and Johnson & Johnson.

"By looking at the best practices across a number of multinational companies, we hope to identify the ideal alignment between the corporate communication function and the development and implementation of strategy," said Dr. Forman. "Companies-not just the individual executive-need to learn how to tell the story about their identity and strategic direction."

In the book, Forman identifies the two levels of corporate communication: "a corporation's voice and the images it projects of itself on a world stage populated by its various audiences."

"There are companies that are purely reactive," said Dr. Forman. "Others understand the power of proactive corporate communication, of defining the organization's voice and image." Ideally, she writes, corporate communication is also an attitude toward communication that permeates an organization-and this attitude can be taught.

Dr. Forman currently teaches an elective in communication at UCLA Anderson School of Management that encourages students to augment their presentations and written communications by placing skills development in context, much like The Power of Corporate Communication does. Forman and Argenti's pivotal work has begun to bridge gaps in management education and corporate communication by citing current events and toting a "communication is key" philosophy.

"Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who put together the first really important treatise on communication, looked at persuasion in context in his era," Dr. Forman explained. "This consisted of the law courts and political assemblies. Today companies and the executives who represent them need to argue for their ideas and put forward their companies' identities in the contested arenas of board rooms, high-stakes competitive markets and the public arenas," places where the media thrives on dramatic, bad news stories that illuminate corporate slips and blunders.

An internationally recognized scholar in communication, Dr. Forman was awarded the prestigious top researcher award from the International Association for Business Communication (IABC) in 1995. Her pivotal work and its impact on the discipline and on management education have begun to close the research gap in the communication realm. Dr. Forman has also presented her innovative approach to teaching management communication to deans of MBA programs at an annual meeting of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the accrediting organization for business schools worldwide.

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