Common Communication Breakdowns: Toni Harrison Of Etched Communication On The Most Common Communication Breakdowns In Corporations And How To Avoid Them

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Do What You Say and Say What You Do: Consistency between words and actions builds trust and credibility. This alignment reassures stakeholders of your integrity and commitment.

In the dynamic world of business, where rapid decision-making, seamless collaboration, and innovative strategies are critical, effective communication is essential. Yet, we find that even in the most successful corporations, communication breakdowns can become a regular occurrence, leading to misaligned goals, misinterpreted strategies, and missed opportunities. In this series, we are talking to CEOs, COOs, CTOs, and other C-Suite leaders, to discuss what leads to communication breakdowns, and more importantly, how they can be avoided. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Toni Harrison Founder & CEO, Etched Communication.

“When your head is down, you miss the magic.”

Toni Harrison is an award-winning communication leader with experience in the boardroom, the situation room and the newsroom. No stranger to creative disruption and closing communication gaps with data-driven, culturally relevant campaigns, Toni launched Etched Communication in 2014. The Houston-based, MWBE, HUB-certified firm specializes in campaigns related to culture, such as multicultural strategy and outreach; causes, like affordable housing and social justice; and crisis, including issues management and public engagement.

Toni led the team responsible for PepsiCo’s $400 million commitment to uplift Black communities and representation following the racial justice movement; devised and executed strategies for Polaris Inc.’s entry into the multicultural space; and expertly navigated a prominent nonprofit through crisis response to the Jamal Khashoggi murder, which received a gold “Stevie,” the highest accolade, for crisis management at The American Business Awards. She also served as an executive communication consultant to employers in Minneapolis following the George Floyd murder; and, she managed public relations and response for Harris County during the 2020 election. She currently serves as a spokesperson for Union Pacific Railroad.

The former CBS journalist has proven track record for leading total-market strategies for Fortune-ranked companies, global consumer brands, governmental entities and nonprofit organizations. C-Suite executives, prominent dignitaries and elected officials rely on her proven public engagement and crisis management expertise to navigate difficult media situations and complex communication challenges. When volatile situations demand representation, Toni frequently serves as a media spokesperson and community liaison.

Named “Top 5 Black Business Women to Celebrate Women’s History Month” by Black Enterprise in 2021, Toni’s passion for community service rivals her professional dedication. She is active in The Links, Inc., Junior League of Houston, PRSA-Houston (Board Member) and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.. She serves on Forbes Young Entrepreneur Council, and is active on the boards for Young Women’s College Preparatory Academies and Good Match. She has been selected for Fortune’s Most Powerful Women-NextGen Summit since 2017.

Toni earned a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and completed graduate coursework at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Toni always accepts opportunities to mentor young professionals, and she frequently speaks at industry conferences and events. Her articles and commentary on culture, DEI, crisis management and leadership are published in Forbes, Business Insider, PR News, Fintech Times and Blavity, among others.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about communication, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

“Etched distinguishes itself through its unique approach to crisis management, with a special focus on culture. In today’s world, where social and racial justice movements such as those sparked by George Floyd’s death and the Stop Asian Hate campaign have become pivotal, our firm’s expertise becomes even more relevant. Five years ago, the fusion of culture with crisis management might have been met with skepticism. However, the current landscape has underscored the importance of such an integration for major corporations, especially Fortune 500 companies. The rarity of organizations that possess the specialized knowledge to navigate these complexities sets us apart. This, coupled with our exceptional service and expertise, is why we have been recognized with awards. It’s not just what we do; it’s the significance of our work in fostering a just corporate culture that defines our success.”

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Tenacity
  2. Growth Mindset
  3. Ingenuity

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

“One of the toughest decisions I faced was guiding our company through a period of significant growth. We were presented with numerous opportunities, attracting interest from various organizations eager to collaborate with us. However, our core aspiration has always been to deliver unparalleled service to our clients. With this goal in mind, and considering the importance of managing team workloads effectively, I made the challenging choice to decline several business prospects. This decision was rooted in our commitment to maintaining the quality of our service and results, without overburdening our teams. It also allowed us to adhere to a rigorous hiring process, ensuring that we could redistribute workloads efficiently. Ultimately, this approach safeguarded our standards of excellence and team well-being.”

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic question. Why is communication within an organization so essential? Can you recall a specific situation where effective communication within your organization led to a significant breakthrough or success?

Following as we’ve seen DEI growth in the corporate marketplace, a lot of companies realized they needed to embrace the concept that’s elevated. Yes. I think following trends we’ve seen ei growth in the corporate marketplace, or in that business. Companies realized they needed to embrace the concept. It’s elevated within their organization. But they weren’t sure how to do it. And communications, we can have way too many companies being successful. You know, talking with their employees, finding out what’s important for them, learning from them in terms of their experiences and how they feel the workplace supports or doesn’t support them. And because of that, we were able to you know, implement multicultural communication strategies as a number of corporations, but it started with communication and how they communicated

Is there such a thing as overcommunication? Have you ever faced any challenges or backlash due to overcommunication, and how did you address it?

“The notion that one can never over-communicate is a misconception. Effective communication involves a balance where both the sender and the receiver play crucial roles. Overloading the receiver with information can lead to confusion, making it difficult for them to grasp or retain the essence of the message. Excessive communication tends to obscure the intended response, complicating the clarity and reception of the message. It’s essential to be direct and concise, ensuring the key takeaways are easily understood. By focusing on what needs to be conveyed for clear understanding, we can avoid the pitfalls of over-communication and enhance the effectiveness of our interactions.”

How do you strike the balance between over-communication and under-communication within the organization? What guiding principles do you follow?

“To mitigate the risk of over-communication, thoughtful structuring of your message is essential. Begin with the most critical point — what is the core message or takeaway for your audience? Next, support this with one to three succinct points that underscore the necessity of this information, effectively demonstrating its relevance. Reiterating the main point reinforces its importance, akin to utilizing an inverted pyramid approach to emphasize key takeaways and desired outcomes. Equally crucial in communication is the conveyance of emotion; messages devoid of emotional resonance often fail to leave a lasting impact. Tailoring the information to resonate personally with your audience enhances its relevance and retention. Remember, effective communication is a two-way process, equally about the sender’s intent and the receiver’s interpretation. Ensuring these two align is fundamental to successful communication.”

The rise of hybrid work has brought new communication dynamics. How have you found this shift affecting communication within your organization, and what innovative methods have you implemented to adapt?

“Cross-functional dialogue, enriched with collaborative tasks, fosters a sense of unity as each participant recognizes their role in contributing to the collective goal. This approach facilitates smoother integration within teams. However, the crisis management sector reveals a lesson often learned through adversity: the disconnects among departments — such as government affairs not coordinating with public relations amidst a regulatory issue — can lead to unpreparedness and reactive measures instead of proactive communication. To circumvent such scenarios, initiating deliberate collaborative efforts is key, albeit it may initially present challenges due to differing perspectives and problem-solving approaches among teams. Embracing these differences is crucial for fostering a comprehensive understanding and response mechanism.

Moreover, emphasizing intentional and consistent communication across teams is vital. It helps in bridging gaps and aligning strategies, ensuring that the entire organization operates cohesively. Cultivating a strong workplace culture is equally important, as it influences daily operations and team dynamics. Whether in a traditional office setting or a hybrid work environment, the essence of culture and its integration into communication strategies plays a pivotal role in shaping effective collaboration and achieving organizational success.”

In an era of specialized roles and departments, how do you ensure that different parts of the organization are not working in silos, and what mechanisms encourage cross-functional dialogue? Similarly, how do you maintain a sense of unity and shared purpose among teams in a hybrid work environment?

Cross-functional dialogue thrives on collaborative assignments, emphasizing the integration of various contributions towards a cohesive whole. This approach not only facilitates easier integration but also underscores the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to the table. In the realm of crisis management, we’ve observed organizations learning the hard way that siloed departments such as government affairs and public relations can lead to regulatory issues and unpreparedness in corporate communication. To circumvent such challenges, deliberate collaboration is key. It might initially feel uncomfortable due to differing viewpoints on work, business, and problem-solving approaches across teams, but it’s imperative for organizational success. Being intentional and consistent in communication, similar to practices in a traditional work environment, fosters a culture of openness and shared responsibility. This cultural emphasis is vital, as it directly influences daily operations and the overall workplace ethos. Through intentional cross-functional dialogue and embracing a culture of collaboration, organizations can navigate challenges more effectively and foster a more integrated and responsive work environment.

What are your “Five Most Common Communication Breakdowns In Corporations And How To Avoid Them”?

1.Intent vs. Interpretations: A frequent misstep is the divergence between what we intend to convey and how it’s interpreted by others. Clear, concise communication, coupled with feedback loops, can bridge this gap, ensuring mutual understanding.

2.Not Meeting Audiences Where They Are: Failure to connect with internal or external audiences on their terms can lead to disengagement. Tailoring communication strategies to meet audience needs and preferences is crucial for effective interaction.

3.Not Communicating Across Lines: Siloed communication restricts the flow of information and ideas. Encouraging cross-functional dialogue fosters a more collaborative and innovative environment.

4.Do What You Say and Say What You Do: Consistency between words and actions builds trust and credibility. This alignment reassures stakeholders of your integrity and commitment.

5. Information Delivery is Not Solely Transactional: Communication is a dynamic process, involving reaction, response, and dialogue. Recognizing and preparing for the interactive nature of communication ensures that messages are not just transmitted but also received and understood effectively.

Each of these points emphasizes that communication is a two-way street — what we put out there must resonate, and we must be adept at receiving and responding to the feedback. It’s not solely about the message delivered; it’s equally about the engagement and understanding it fosters.”

What role do you see for yourself as a leader in fostering a climate where employees at all levels feel comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns? Can you share an example where this openness led to a positive change?

“To cultivate a culture of open communication, it’s essential that employees at every level are clear on whom to approach and the appropriate channels to utilize for engaging in difficult conversations. Employees place their trust and confidence in people, not in the abstract entity of the company. Thus, creating a truly open communication environment requires a human touch. People need clear pathways for communication, ensuring they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns. This entails not only providing the means to communicate but also ensuring that the company’s response is empathetic and accepting. An open communication environment inevitably involves hearing challenging feedback from employees, but the key lies in how these insights are addressed. Acknowledging and validating employee concerns without punitive reactions is crucial to fostering a supportive atmosphere where open dialogue is not just encouraged but is a fundamental aspect of the organizational culture”

Navigating the complex terrain of corporate communication must certainly present unique challenges. As a C-suite leader, what thoughts or concerns, related to this or otherwise, often keep you awake at night? How do these influence your approach to leadership?

“In our digitally driven, socially connected world, the velocity at which information — and misinformation — spreads is unprecedented. Falling behind in this rapid flow can have immediate repercussions, affecting employee morale, investor confidence, and stakeholder engagement within moments. This reality underscores the critical need for open, cross-functional communication across teams, enabling swift identification and correction of misinformation and inconsistencies. It’s a dynamic that demands a commitment to transparency and accuracy, embodying the principle of ‘do what you say and say what you do.’ When announcements are made without timely follow-up or actions fail to align with words, trust erodes. And without trust, effective communication with any audience becomes virtually impossible. Thus, maintaining trust through consistent, honest communication is foundational to navigating the challenges of our fast-paced information landscape.”

Can you share a piece of feedback or advice you received that significantly altered your leadership approach or philosophy?

“In embracing the unconventional approach of leading with one’s fears, we uncover the power of innovation and transformation. Often, it is the unfamiliar, the novel, or the groundbreaking ideas that evoke apprehension, yet these are precisely the catalysts for extraordinary achievements. Adopting this philosophy has been a pivotal shift in my leadership journey, teaching me the invaluable lesson of finding comfort in discomfort. This approach has not only propelled us towards embracing change but has also been instrumental in realizing moments of success. It underscores the belief that true leadership is about facing the unknown with courage, thereby turning potential challenges into opportunities for growth and excellence.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

  1. Instagram: @Etchedaffect
  2. LinkedIn:
  3. Website:
  4. Medium:

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.