The battle lines are drawn

Over at CommScrum, we have opened a debate about what the CommScrum team has identified as a quite fundamental issue in the world of employee communications – the debate about the professional communicator’s place in the world of business.  Everything seems to boil down to this – from my Typology of Internal Communicators to a belief in Systems Thinking to debates about Best Practice vs Innovation.  We’re getting to the nitty gritty DNA of the future of our profession.

We’ve danced around the issue before, several times, which is why we chose to tackle it head on with this post.  It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

In a way, though, having seen at least one response, I can more or less predict the conversation, the players and their perspectives.  Odd that we’re finding the DNA, and and the same time there is a significant cadre – who boast having “trained” thousands of communicators – who are probably holding us back.  I shudder to think of the long term lack of value being delivered by 5,000 people trained to toe the company line and churn out great communications and never challenge anyone in authority since communicators should know their place.

It actually saddens me.  Henry Kissinger was once asked why academics were so vitriolic in their arguments, and he replied, “Because the rewards are so small.”  Which I think just about sums it up.

There is a change in the wings.  Old world ex-journalists, and glorified writers and social scientists with a research bent, and PR hacks who couldn’t stand the heat, those who came in from the cold and picked up the baton of “internal communications” will be a dying breed, and good riddance to them.  These are the people who are terrified of confrontation, fear the CEO and any executive, and just want the quiet life debating tone of voice, whether anal-retentive has a hyphen or not, and churning out polished content for other people.  That it’s a packaging job, someone else does the thinking bit. Contribution to the enterprise? Pretty scarce, so no wonder they bemoan execs not valuing what they do for a living.

One of my favourite light bulb moments was way back in university in speech communication class when I learned about something called “the assimilation contrast effect” – which holds that sometimes even if someone agrees with you, if you are too aggressive in presenting your argument they will intuitively disagree with you.  We’ll see plenty of that I’m sure on both sides.

But I must turn to my personal experience, and I can count numerous occasions in the previous year alone where being a “professional communicator” by name had little to do with the value I have created for my clients. Where my perspective as a communicator, no doubt informed by many other experience, factors, and experiences, transcended with effortless ease “communication” and put me squarely in “leadership and strategy” territory.  Which doesn’t mean I can’t see that your line spacing is off, your grammar lacks parallelism, the document is off-register, the photo is poorly cropped, the copy needs to be adapted for the web, the navigation and user experience are not working, the metrics are not in place, etc., etc.

Sorry to disappoint myself, but I am not a unique snowflake.  I can’t be alone in this.  Maybe I’m longer in the tooth than some, but I refuse to believe that the majority of my professional contemporaries can’t tell similar tales.  Those not in the “communication as a noun” camp, that is.

Examples …

  • Rebranding project for one of the world’s leading financial software providers.  Arguing with the CEO, a quite determined, impressive and intimidating man, about the strategy for his business and differentiating based on what makes them unique.  Winning.  Views taken aboard.  Strategy influenced.  Organisational structure affected and operational infrastructure being adapted.
  • Using communication and an inside-out approach for a leading professional services firm to re-articulate their values and positioning when the Chairman, CEO and MDs all just wanted “communication” in  the form of a new logo.  Forced them to confront what they “really” stood for, to pick a “Value Discipline” and relentlessly pursue it in strategy, operations and, yes, communications.  Converted the unbelievers.  Successful and award-winning communications as the “outcome”, but the “noun” stuff is icing on the proverbial cake.
  • Creating an EVP or a client with such a resonant and robust business case behind it that it has wormed its way up the chain – with the CEO using EVP-borrowed terms in the annual and CR reports; with the brand being adapted as relevant from Europe to Asia.
  • Working with a global investment bank to determine that the values that they want to express and an EVP are actually the values they ought to express as a brand (in their circumstances). And winning, against some heavyweight opposition.
  • And other times, I fail too.

… and there are more.

This is important.  We can’t tolerate amongst us the smug middle manager who can quote seventeen research papers and studies refuting any point you make, yet who can’t demonstrate any contribution other than justification of his or her own job and ticking the boxes on the way to a juicy pension by not rocking the boat.  We can’t tolerate the “I’ve trained 1,000 communicators” mentality – that does not confer moral authority.  OK – those who can, do – and those who can’t, train. We can’t tolerate the communicator who touches their forelock and says “sir” and “ma’am” when the CEO says deliver. The ones who seem to think that pragmatism is incompatible with a strategic mindset (I love that one – the last refuge of the scoundrel in my book).

The CEOs I know are human beings.  Often wealthy and powerful.  But equally isolated and lonely and seeking someone to tell them what they don’t want to hear from their yes men.  And if yours isn’t one of them, to paraphrase Mark Darby, go somewhere and find one.  Life is too short.

It comes back to the confidence vs competence debate.  And being able to influence.  And to be able to make your case and prove not only your value, but to help create new value in other parts of the organisation.  Along the way making it clear that anyone who doesn’t like you “sticking your nose into their business” should identified as an empire builder, and if their empire is not maximising value to act accordingly.  Sounds like leadership to me.

Next step?  Get a sheet of paper.  Left hand column: attributes of communicators who see their world as a noun; the limited world view.  Right hand column: attributes of communicators who think the professional can and should do more.

You do the rest.


2 thoughts on “The battle lines are drawn

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