"The fucking comms team's done it again."
So exclaimed the guy I’m sharing office space with at the moment. He'd slammed the phone down and seemed to be appealing to me for some sympathy, because, once again, they'd shot off on their own tangent and published something on the organisation's Facebook page that wasn't just misleading, it was wrong.
Let me tell you a tale. [Please note the Freelance Generalist's warning.]
Your typical comms person has a background in journalism, marketing and media, usually at a tertiary level. They chose this line of study because they were attracted to writing and storytelling, or to digital design, or to visual wizardry. They wanted to work somewhere they could practise the art they are so passionate about. After graduating, many found themselves slotting into a ‘comms team’ of some kind, whether in a government department or an organisation large enough to need specialists to look after their marketing and promotion.
And naturally, they would not have scored the job without the qualification. The aforementioned government department or organisation, identifying a need to espouse their capabilities or virtues in public, actively sought such a person. I’ll bet you fifty bucks that the job advert responsible for linking employee with employer stated in no uncertain terms, ‘The applicant must have tertiary qualifications in journalism, media or marketing.’
Much of the time it’s a match made in heaven. The business’s press releases, blog and social media posts, newsletters and web content are in good hands and are a fine reflection of the calibre of the organisation.
One size, however, does not fit all.
The relationship can break down in cases where the business has a technical or otherwise complex build to it. I don’t just mean hi-tech or specialist companies where the gobbledegook is through the roof, but wherever there are subtleties, or complicated ideas at play, or where the messages that need communicating are sensitive or contentious.
There’s a very real risk that even with the best intentions in the world the comms team will push a message into the ether that doesn’t align with the organisation’s intentions. There usually are safeguards in place, of course, meaning that communications collateral goes through an approval process before it’s published, thereby reducing the risk of damage being done. But think about the way that process works.
For the subject matter expert to approve the message (in whatever format it is – article, media release, blog post …), the message has to be not only accurate, it must also competently reflect the complexities and nuances of the matter at hand. For a comms person who hasn’t had experience in dealing with these complexities it’s a tough ask. Your blog post or your media release or article might be sent back to you with more than a few red marks, causing a new round of changes and another review process, all of which takes time for writer and reviewer alike.
The worst-case scenario – and I’ve seen this time and time again – is that the subject matter expert is left with a rather bitter taste in his mouth with regard to the perceived usefulness of the [expletive] comms team. The relationship between those in the engine room and the people who run the Facebook page can become quite strained.
In some groups with whom I’ve worked there’s very much a them-and-us mentality, with the business experts seeing the comms team as more of a hindrance than a help, and, in turn, the comms folk labelling the experts as too fussy and failing to understand the value of a good sound grab.
The fault lies at both ends. The experts are, perhaps, guilty of not taking the time to explain the difficulties, technicalities or political nuances to the comms team. The comms staff in turn might not consult adequately with the experts to get to the crux of the matter.
To me, the solution rests with comms. If there’s someone in the team who’s prepared to dig for the tough stuff then mistranslation becomes a thing of the past. A whole new world of opportunities opens up because the comms person is trained to spot a good story, even if it’s partially hidden. The quality of the messaging is higher. Clients receive better information. And the process from inspiration to publication works much more smoothly.
Sadly, it’s rare to find a comms person who gets the benefits of this kind of vertical integration. I’ve met lots of really clever creative types who are great with digital marketing and search engine optimisation, or writing catchy media bylines, but who don’t care too much for delving deep under the organisation’s covers to learn the nuts and bolts of the business.
My advice, after 13 years of witnessing some seriously grinding gears in this line of work, is quite simple.
If you are in comms, learn to appreciate the benefits of talking to the engineers, the plumbers, the policy analysts in the engine room of the business. Learn what they know. Ask questions. This way, when they tell you something you’re less likely to misinterpret it. Look for opportunities – ones that the experts themselves might not have identified, communications not being their speciality.
If you’re an employer looking to put on a comms person, look not only for a relevant qualification in marketing, but also for a bit of gumption when it comes to getting dirt on the hands. The imaginative creative kid with the great portfolio might look good for business but can she chew the fat with the guys in the workshop?
It’s too late for my office mate. He now has to call up Rob from comms, explain what's wrong with the post, and then negotiate some kind of backtrack before his opponents (he works with an environmental organisation with a great many enemies) can organise their retaliatory field day.
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 15 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.