A debate has been sparked about the profile that comms and PR people should have. Here’s one view. Be invisible to all but senior manegers and finance.
by Julie Waddicor
Jack Adlam’s excellent recent post about the need to promote the role of Communications officers, and to do our own PR better, set me thinking. I’d like to pose a contrary view, and I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on it.
I’ve said for years that a good Comms officer is invisible. When we do our job well, everyone else takes the credit for what we have put in place and delivered. When it goes wrong, the Comms team is firmly in the firing line. The nature of our role is that our every mistake is public, and every success makes someone else and / or the organisation look good. That’s the nature of the beast, and I think we have to suck that up a bit really, however tricky it might be personally.
People don’t identify with comms
I don’t think we are ever going to get the public to champion to role of communications. We, of all people, know how important it is to keep messages simple, and the reality is that comms is not simple. That makes it hard for people to grasp. If you ask a child what they want to be they when they grow up, they will say ‘doctor’, ‘nurse’, ‘astronaut’, ‘train driver’. Tangible roles that are easy to understand. They don’t say ‘I want to brief the Leader on his lines for an interview, before identifying the key stakeholders for this service change, whilst coming up with some brilliant creative about something really boring and managing the latest social media troll.’ The same goes for adults. They identify on an emotional level with the people who they see perform a service: the doctor who saved their mother, the road worker who fixed the pothole they could have broken their car on, the lecturer who inspired them to do brilliantly on their course. They don’t identify with the Comms officer who sorted out the internal communications so the doctor felt well informed and able to do their job, and promoted the online reporting tool so that Bob knew how to tell the council about the pothole, and worked with the lecturer to make that student feel at home enough to study well.
Better us then them
What we do is intangible to most, so we’re an easy target for lazy journalists to bite the hand that feeds. But does it matter that much? I’d rather that journalist had so few bad things to say about my organisation that they decided to pick on the Comms team. That’s much better than reporting on a culture that led to malpractice, the frustrated motorist who feels his voice isn’t being heard or the student who wasted £9K on fees or, much worse, committed suicide because they were never helped to feel a sense of belonging and didn’t know where to turn for support.
Invisible but to some
In the last couple of years I’ve refined my thinking a bit. I now believe that a good Comms officer is invisible to everyone except the senior management of the organisation and those we need to work with. The people we need to impress are those who hold the purse strings, enable us to have the influence we need to give our best, and cooperate with us to get the job done. The public will identify with the front line staff who we support, and that’s okay. Our organisation will know we are absolutely vital if we’re doing our jobs well and reporting on what we achieve in the right way. A bit of bad press isn’t great, but it won’t have any lasting impact. We need to have the same resilience when faced with lazy journalism that we show in our jobs all the time.
My kids are now 10 and 12, and I’ve spent their entire lives telling them about what I do at work. If you ask them what I do, they will say (and I know because I’ve asked people to do it): “Mum makes posters and leaflets”. Ouch. Every time they say it a bit of me dies inside. But the complexity of my job is too much for them, and frankly bores them. It’s the same for the public.
I need to take my satisfaction and reward elsewhere. Last week, I spent an hour with our Counselling and Wellbeing team talking to them about how to promote their service, how to target better and, as a result, how to improve what they offer so it really makes a difference. They literally bounced with enthusiasm and we’re having a follow up session soon so I can help them put their ideas into practice. That’s my reward, alongside the increase in the number of students who don’t drop out because they’ve been well supported. Those students will thank the counsellor that helped them, not me, and that’s absolutely fine. If I can get my kids to stop saying I make posters, then that will do as my victory.
Julie Waddicor is head of student experience and engagement at the University of Salford.