BCE is Bell is BCE is Bell

I've been noodling on the dilemma facing BCE in the last couple of days.

Since Canada's Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, dropped his Halloween bomb earlier this week, kicking the guts out of BCE's plans to convert themselves into an Income Trust, there has been a lot of speculation about what BCE should do now.

Almost four years ago, I was asked to help write a little communications strategy paper - helping out some very good friends who were pitching for BCE's annual report business. I know the paper was submitted to a number of the higher-ups at BCE. No idea if any of them actually read it.

I have just re-read it, though (I read me all the time :-) and, while I certainly wouldn't presume to suggest that it holds any wonderful magic formula for fixing such a mighty company, yet it's still kind of personally entertaining to note just how much hasn't changed in the years since Michael Sabia first took office.

A couple of excerpts, just for the fun of it:

BCE's reputation is Bell Canada’s and vice versa. Indeed, with the self-sustained perception of BCE as essentially a holding company, the only reputation the company has is derived from the performance of the various operating companies within the group. Bell is clearly the most significant contributor, in this respect as in others.

Of all the different opinions and perspectives being offered on BCE’s business and marketing challenges, the single consistent thread in the media and investor community seems to be the market’s fervent desire for the company to show better value from its roots. The most important asset that BCE owns, clearly, is the Bell business...

The paradox of BCE’s messaging structure, however, is that the company has apparently dedicated very little energy in recent years to addressing what people should and can expect from this most valuable part of the company’s portfolio. The company’s entire messaging strategy has been kept at the BCE level; the rarefied and externally nebulous holding company, with little clarity and message prominence given to the Bell operations.

And later in the piece:

This seeming lack of definition would not necessarily be an issue, were there a strong and lucidly defined meaning for BCE and a clearly delineated role for both Bell and the other operating entities within the context of the parent. The challenge now is to define and articulate this comprehensive strategy – to establish a credible platform of leadership for BCE while also recognizing and appropriately framing Bell Canada and the other key businesses within the group.

This is a complex communications challenge. An approach to resolving the complexity that appears to flow logically from Mr. Sabia’s recent messages to the market is to refocus messaging around the idea of a fundamentally strong corporate centre...

BCE currently fills this role in a number of ways for companies within the group. It acts as a solid central bank, a strong manager, and the setter of aggressive performance benchmarks – establishing the targets and managing the operating units to drive their success.

The corporate centre looks to integrate and converge business functions where appropriate, but does this between the divisions – as opposed to arbitrarily converging disparate companies into one monolithic whole. This certainly appears to be the way BCE operates; but the message is not clearly stated at present.

It's a little weird to think that, were I called upon to counsel them on their communication challenges right now, I'd probably be approaching things from exactly the same point of view.

And in their defense, one could point out that the Income Trust conversion plan upon which they were engaged was indeed Mr. Sabia's way of returning the company to the ideal of a strong corporate centre, clearly defined around the core telco business.

Michael Sabia commented at the time: "the strategy we have been pursuing over the last three or four years is not about diversification but about focus, with Bell as the centrepiece of that focus."

Makes sense to me. Maybe I've just talked myself into believing that the best course of action for BCE right now is to just push ahead as they were, only without doing it all under the guise of an Income Trust conversion. Stay the course with the focus thing, but be a hell of a lot clearer about communicating that to the market.