Anyone can do comms, right? Why communications doesn’t always get the professional respect it deserves, and what to do about it.
by Anna Caig
I’ve worked in communications for seventeen years, local government communications for eleven of those. It’s a career that’s been good to me – varied and challenging with lots of flexibility. I’ve always been all about the work-life balance and when, about a year ago, I was offered the opportunity to apply for a Head of Communications role, I thought long and hard about it.
Among the reasons that convinced me to go for it was the chance to tackle an issue familiar to comms professionals everywhere. Something that has perplexed me for a long time. Why, when the work we do is of vital importance to the success of an organisation, is our expertise often undervalued?
I could see the unfulfilled potential in the position of our service within the organisation. We were doing good evidence-based and outcome-focused work, but was this always the right work at the right time? Were we engaged with the key priorities of the organisations in a way that enabled us to deliver optimum results? It’s an issue I have reflected on with public sector comms friends and colleagues up and down the country.
Communications is one of the services members are most interested in in local government; it supports almost every other service in one way or another; done well it can mean the success of a multi-million pound project, customer-focused service redesign that delivers hundreds of thousands of pounds of savings, or a city full of people kept safe; done badly it can result in a demoralised workforce, confusion and even danger to life, or senior people forced to resign. Why, when the stakes are this high, do we still get so much “We made this big grown-up decision over here. Can you write a press release about it?”
Don’t get me wrong, this attitude is by no means universal. There are plenty of senior people who value their comms colleagues, officers and members who involve us at the right time and at a strategic level, ask for our professional input (and, crucially, listen when we give it) and reap the dividends of more efficient and effective work. But, too often, we come up against a dismissive attitude that our colleagues in HR, finance or legal services, for example, rarely encounter (they may disagree!) Why are decisions based around comms or reputational concerns so often made without an expert in comms or reputation in the room?
Could the answer be that, much of the time, while communications is recognised as vital, there’s a perception that anyone can do it? To the untrained eye it’s writing some stuff – yes, almost anyone can do that; choosing some colours – check; making some phone calls – check. Who needs an expert?
Could the reason be that the outcome of some of our most challenging work is the absence rather than the presence of stuff. Employee dissatisfaction assuaged; negative media coverage spiked; complaints avoided. Once you’re out of the woods, it is easy to imagine it could never have been any other way. More than once, I’ve wished I could include a portal into a parallel universe in my evaluation of good comms work.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that there may also be a gender dimension to this conversation. Comms is a predominantly female industry often operating in male-dominated environments. “The power of ideas depends largely on how much support they receive,” according to political economist Peter Hall, and many female comms professionals will be familiar with situations where their contributions are sidelined in favour of suggestions that don’t necessarily have any more inherent worth from male colleagues.
We all know brilliant women who’ve made it to the top of their profession, and brilliant, considerate male colleagues. But the truth is, overall, women are still consistently underrepresented in senior roles (and that’s even within comms – “It’s all women out there. And the two people running it are dudes” says Sarahjane Sacchetti); in mixed-gender groups men take up the majority of “speech-space” but also perceive that women dominate; men consistently overestimate the intelligence and capability of other men, and underestimate the intelligence and capability of women. This is largely unconscious, of course, but could it be that communications as a profession falls foul to discrimination against its dominant gender?
Or perhaps the problem is that we speak a different language. To do our job well, we sometimes have to break through stuffiness and accepted wisdom, and ask difficult questions. That can feel challenging to people more used to established and well-respected hierarchies. And at its best, comms puts real people at the heart of an organisation’s work, bringing the voice of the average person in the street into the corridors of power. Many of our colleagues understand the value of this, but if you’re in a room with people only used to speaking policy or planning, plain English doesn’t always get a lot of respect.
Conversely, as a slight tangent, this is also the reason why comms professionals working with elected members can sometimes find their greatest allies among these politicians. People who have had to seek election understand the importance of ideas and language that make sense to the majority of the population.
I know this all adds up to a less than cheery analysis of perceptions of our chosen profession. But, the first step in tackling an issue is to understand what you’re up against.
I got myself that Head of Comms job, rolled up my sleeves and got to work. My fantastic team and I began a programme of activity identifying structural, practical and softer actions to affect culture change, both within the comms service itself and across the authority. We took responsibility for demonstrating our worth – demanding more from ourselves, our colleagues and the organisation we work for. And we learnt a lot along the way.
Part one has been all about exploring some of the possible reasons why comms doesn’t always get the respect it deserves but, don’t worry, coming soon is part two – what you can do about it and how to position your communications work at the strategic heart of your organisation.
Anna Caig is the head of communications at Sheffield City Council and a tutor on the MA Journalism course at The University of Sheffield. You can say hello on Twitter at @AnnaCaig
Image via Smithsonian Institution