The mark of a great comms function is whether it is operating at a strategic level. When it's working well, communications should be 'in the room', influencing the direction of the business and shaping decisions. For me, whether this is possible or not comes down to two things: structure and personality.
The closer the comms function is to the CEO the better. Ideally there should be a direct reporting line but if not, two levels away should be the absolute maximum. If your Communications Manager reports to your Head of Policy and Performance who reports to your Director of Resources, you can guarantee that communication will be 87th on the list of things to think about.
You'll end up with a communications team running round like headless chickens responding to media enquiries they previously had no knowledge of, producing leaflets there is no need for and churning out newsletters with no bearing on the key messages of the business.
So structure helps, but personality is the key. To work well, the bond between the CEO (and Senior Management Team) and the communications function has got to be strong. You've got to know basic stuff like mission, vision and values and what's in the business plan, but more importantly than that you've got to get in your Chief Executive's head.
You've got to know how they think, be able to anticipate how they will react to something, know the tone and rhythm of their voice, know what they would say in private and what they would say in public and be a steel trap when it comes to confidential information. They must trust you more than anyone else (or at least as much) in the business. To develop this trust, they have to know you are absolutely honest with them.
My impression is it can be a lonely job heading up a business and frequently, people won't tell you what they really think. The communications function needs to play that role to the CEO, talking about the issues that matter, being brave enough to have difficult conversations and challenging where necessary.
When your communications are strategic, better decisions are made, your reputation improves and all your audiences are better informed.
So, is your communications function operational or strategic?