• Author:Ben Jones
  • Comments:0

“They don’t understand us”

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard down the years from consultants or in house communications people is that their client or colleagues don’t understand comms. You hear it time and again.

They think comms is all about making PowerPoint slides, designing posters or screen savers, printing a colourful leaflet, arranging a meeting or acting as their PA when dealing with key stakeholders! I have lost count of the times I heard this in my project work or when working in house. The Chief Executive doesn’t understand how hard it is to deliver a comms campaign or secure good media coverage, he just wants to get on the telly. The Board don’t appreciate how much time it take to maintain our social media profiles. The Chairman thinks good comms is him writing a letter to The Times and getting it printed. And so the list goes on.

These complaints sometimes have truth within them but making them misses the point. I am reminded of this quotation – although I never thought I would positively quote Enoch Powell (!); “A politician that complains about the media is like a ship’s captain that complains about the sea”.

I take the view that when someone doesn’t understand what you do that is your responsibility. As a communications professional is it your job to demonstrate what you do (in simple terms), why it is important and how it adds value. If you cannot persuade and convince your colleagues or clients what chance do you have or persuading your key internal and external audiences.

Comms people – and I say this as a comms person – can be too precious about what they don’t do – I am not a PowerPoint monkey/glorified PA/it’s not my job to draft thank you letters to staff from the CEO etc etc – or try to make it seem like a complex science of stakeholder mapping, matrix drawing, plans and impact assessments – instead of being prepared to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done and use that as a platform for doing more and for extending their influence.

My experience tells me that you often get the chance to do the cool, fun stuff – the stuff you know can really help your organisation- and play to your strengths and make the most of your experience – only when you have put in some hard yards and made some stuff happen that people think is important. Starting by telling senior folk their ideas are wrong when you have not convinced them yours are right is the road to hell, a life of marginalisation in the office or a P45. Comms teams who spend their time complaining that the organisation is doing it wrong and doesn’t understand comms are themselves part of the problem.

The most successful communications teams I have worked with or seen in action do two things; they deliver and they shape. They deliver what is needed – even if that is an event the CEO really wants to do but they don’t think it will work; a roadshow with staff that has no purpose except to give senior people a stage to stand on; or a newsletter that no-one will read – and they shape the strategic thinking or the organisation and the direction it takes.

Alistair Campbell is one of the most successfully communication professionals in British public life. Why? He was able to deliver – his teams did the day to day stuff really, really well – they secured the media coverage or ran the events or produced the briefings or letters that folk wanted and needed – whilst also being in the room for the key discussions about policy, strategy and the way forward. They were in the room because they – he – proved that communications can add value to achievement of the big goals and aspirations or their bosses and their organisation.

They proved that communications input can help deliver the key relationships-building with people and organisations that can make or break their plans (MPs, regulators, the media, influential opinion formers such as think tanks and the like), proactively manage reputation by getting the organisation on the front foot and ahead of their rivals and competitors, manage risks that stuff will go wrong and help focus on the priorities that will have the maximum impact with key audiences (e.g. customers).

Great comms people bring more than a bag or toolkit of templates and creative ideas – they bring an understanding of the environment in which the organisation is operating in and some insights on why some messages, ideas or approaches will have more or less impact. They bring the outside world or internal views of staff to the boardroom and in a way that is constructive and focused on how to achieve the goal of the organisation. They are strategists as well as tacticians.

Adding value and showing that you can add value is the secret to being understood as a communication professional and the path to getting to do the work you really want to do. Rather than complaining about the weather, communications people should make it.