Posted by: Kristen Ridley | March 7, 2011

As the stomach turns

SickMy pal, and one of the smartest, savviest people I know when it comes to all issues communications-related, Steve Crescenzo, put a new blog post out today, reacting to comments on a re-run of an old column he wrote, and pleading for confirmation that, as a profession, we communicators do NOT, in fact, believe “that our time is best spent collecting, compiling, and publishing service announcements.”

It’s odd timing for me to see that post, because I’ve been seeing a resurgence in the various blogs, Twitter-feeds, and website postings I read, of the seemingly perennial lament about the lack of respect communicators get. This position has always driven me around the bend! In fact, I wrote an article about it, which was printed in a now-defunct communications publication.

Since the subject has come up yet again, and since Steve brought up the topic of re-runs, I decided to re-run that article here, and see how others feel about how best for us communicators to get us some respect.

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Okay – stick a fork into me – I am officially and completely . . . DONE!! If I have to read one more article lamenting how communicators can’t get / don’t have / wish upon a star for, the “coveted seat at the table” I may poke out my own eyes.

It is time – in fact well past time – to shut up and do something already! I realize that as communicators, talking is a key part of what we do, but this mythic seat at the table we’re always going on about is earned – not given – and it is earned by “doing” not “talking” which seems to frequently escape our notice if the tone of these articles I keep seeing is anything to go by. Far too often (for my taste anyway) the variations on this perennial conversation suggest that the reason communicators are excluded from the senior executive discussion is because “they” won’t “let” us in. This is simply an easy out.

I realize this may be shocking to some, but the truth is that most senior executives are not sitting in their special board rooms like some mustachioed Simon LeGree conspiring ways to exclude the poor communicator while doing a movie imitation of “Bwa Ha Ha Ha!” Guess what? They’re too busy trying to figure out how to keep the shareholders, customers and employees happy while simultaneously increasing production and decreasing costs, to spare much thought at all for communications unless you give them a reason to think about you – preferably in a positive way.

Having access to, and being heard by any senior executive team, regardless of the company, industry or environment, comes from proving you have a contribution to make to meeting the business goals – period.

More importantly, you don’t get this access and involvement handed to you with the understanding you’ll prove you deserve it afterwards. I cannot fathom where this idea has come from. You have to show your contributions first and then you may get the access and involvement you’re seeking.

Today’s business climate is continuously becoming more competitive and cutthroat. Consolidation, takeovers, downsizing, outsourcing, demanding shareholders – all these things make it imperative that businesses be more cost conscious and faster moving than in the past. That presents both an opportunity and a challenge for the ambitious, committed communicator who’s willing to work hard.

I think part of the problem is that there is still no consistent, agreed-upon answer to what the communication function is. Are we an art? A discipline? If we can’t even decide within our own community what we should be, how the heck are busy executives supposed to figure it out?

As well, because what we do is creative, many communicators (and I freely admit to sometimes being one of them) like to portray ourselves as artistes, and we want to be able to behave accordingly. Unfortunately, you don’t get a seat at the executive table by smoking French cigarettes or wearing a beret to work! (Note to beret wearers – nothing personal. As for the French – I figure they already hate most everyone, so no harm done).

Instead, we need to take the initiative to identify and present opportunities to our senior executives that will demonstrate how effective communication can help make your business more results-focused and, ultimately, more successful. There isn’t a sane executive in the world who isn’t interested in that kind of information.

Right off the bat, there are two questions you should always be prepared to answer (with appropriate supporting detail and specifics) about every project suggestion or business issue recommendation you make:

1. Which of our business objectives does this contribute to, and how?
2. How much will it cost?

That first item pre-supposes of course, that you know what your business objectives are. It is incredibly easy to become caught up in getting the newsletter out, managing the intranet content, organizing the employee town hall meetings, and all the other tasks related to the day-to-day delivery of communication in a corporate environment. Fight that!

Some companies make the strategic objectives freely available to all of the employees, and if your company is one of those, you’re ahead of the game. If you can’t get them on your own, ask your boss or one of the other executives if you can see a copy. Most performance objectives link down the line from executives through to the front line, so what you’re working on should have a connection to your boss’s objectives anyway, which will certainly connect to the overall business objectives. Most reasonable managers will appreciate your initiative in wanting to align the work you do to contribute to the business’s goals, and shouldn’t have a problem giving you some information about them.

Once you have them, you need to take those objectives, read them, understand them and pin them up in your cubicle, or if you’re one of those truly blessed communicators with an office (sigh! I’m so jealous) put them on the wall right in front of your computer.

Everything you do, or even think about doing should link up to one of those objectives. For example, the employee newsletter connects to the “employee satisfaction/employer of choice” objective that most companies have some version of. Developing a relationship with an agency or creating a marketing campaign feed the “be the leader in our industry/boost sales 25 percent, etc.” objective.

Obviously every company has its own unique objectives, but you get the idea. It helps to think about the objectives your company is trying to meet as though you own the company and every dollar it makes (or doesn’t) is going straight into your pocket, because when we have a personal stake in something, every action we take is more committed and passionate. This approach not only helps you get ahead but it also can re-energize you out of the complacency comfort zone we sometimes slip into as we deliver the tactical products and services of communications.

Number two on my list is figure out what it will cost. For most communication activities getting a cost is as simple as making a few preliminary phone calls and getting some quotes. But there is also the manpower cost if something you want to pitch happens to require cross-functional involvement within your organization. That can be a little trickier, but you can still come up with a relatively solid estimate of the people, skill sets and hours would take to get a project done.

This also has a side benefit, because getting this done will most likely require that you talk to colleagues in other areas of your business to find out how many hours a particular task takes or what else might be involved in getting it done. A communicator cannot know too much about their own business and talking to people in those other departments does two things for you in addition to providing the necessary information for informing your project pitch to senior management:

1. You build up a list of contacts in other areas for future collaboration
2. You may identify some excellent story ideas for that newsletter you’re responsible for, or the intranet site that is always in need of business focused content.

Now, I can hear some of you saying: “You don’t know my organization. The executives here aren’t interested in my ideas, and won’t give me the time of day, let alone approve my recommendation for a new project.” Or: “I can barely get my existing work done now, how am I supposed to find the time to run around the building getting cost estimates and preparing project plans for something that probably won’t get approved anyway?”

All I can say to that is that a job is what you choose to make of it. Anyone who went into the communication field expecting lone three martini lunches and easy work is living in an alternate reality from mine. Like it or not the communicator’s role is one in which we need to constantly prove our value to our organizations, and doing that is undeniably hard, slogging work. But if we want to take our entire industry to the next level of recognition and respect, I don’t see another realistic path. At the risk of being clichéd, anything worth having requires hard work.

If you really aren’t able to make the commitment or dedicate the time necessary to show your executives the value that your work is delivering to your business, for whatever reason, fair enough. All I ask is that you please stop writing those blasted “Pleeeeease! Can I have a seat at the big people table???” articles, because they don’t accomplish anything, and they annoy those of us who are trying to do the work that will actually get us there.

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So, there’s my opinion (or rant if you prefer). What do you think? Should communicators be spending time making lists of employee anniversary-dates and interviewing people about their hobbies? Or should we be relentless in connecting appropriate communication strategies to the goals of our business to show the executives the value of our jobs???

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