When your company hires communications staff or an outside agency, are you getting communications professionals, communications consultants, or both?
Successful communications professionals must wear many hats. To be promoted up the ladder into top communications positions, they must demonstrate proficieny in areas that require very diverse skills:
- The ability to interact well with clients, whether the clients are internal corporate managers and executives or external clients of a communications agency
- A reputation as an integral member of a team
- Good project management skills: the ability to be productive personally and produce results as well as to stay on top of other team members to make sure they produce quality results within deadlines
- The ability to counsel senior-level managers and executives
What it takes to be a communications professional
Communications practitioners demonstrate their professionalism through excellence in numbers
one through four above. However, they don’t make it into the top echelon of the communications industry if they can’t counsel senior management. Anyone who does a good job of the first four attributes can be defined as a communications professional and will be quite employable up to a certain level in an organization.
However, the fifth item on the list above is mandatory for moving to the top.
Of course, senior communications management must also have other business-oriented skills, such as the discipline and know-how to develop budgets and stay on budget, people management skills and sales and presentation skills. Those business skills and the first four items items on the list above can be taught, and they improve over the course of a career. However, the acquisition of communications counselling skills is more difficult. I’ve given a lot of thought to this. What’s involved in being a good consultant? How did I learn how to do this, and how can I work with others to improve their abilities in this area?
What it takes to be a communications consultant
The biggest obstacles most people have to being consultants are a lack of confidence in themselves and a fear of contradicting authority figures, such as the big boss in their own companies or the decision-makers in a client’s organization.
My early background as a journalist was really helpful in giving me the confidence to speak my mind to senior management. In my 20s, as a newspaper reporter and then a magazine editor, my job included frequent interviews with top executives. It was my responsibility as a journalist to ask tough questions. In some cases I asked questions that the executive’s own staff were afraid to ask. I was also taught that I shouldn’t take anything at face value, should always question what I was told in an interview and do sufficient research to verify information received. This got me into the habit of looking for possible flaws in a story so I could come to my own conclusion about where the truth lay. All of this was good preparation for counselling clients.
I was also very lucky to have some great mentors to observe and emulate along the way.
Why it’s hard to be a consultant
By their very nature, communications professionals are detached from the main business of a company and often seen by corporate executives as outsiders who aren’t “in the trenches.” The communications staff generally doesn’t have the advanced education and training in the company's industry (e.g., law, drug development, architecture, etc.) that others in the company have. They are often perceived by the professionals they’re representing as 1) “not one of us” and 2) a cost center, not an income center (even though the work they’re doing should contribute to higher income). People without professional communications experience frequently underestimate those who have it. For example, there’s a common misperception that almost anyone can do PR, which is misunderstood as only requiring the ability to write well.
These factors leave the communications staff vulnerable to being treated as foot soldiers and told what to do rather than as generals who are asked what to do. When instructions come from senior executives, many people don't question them because they're afraid to be seen as annoying or presumptuous. However, doing what you’re asked without questioning why, without providing feedback on what would work best, is the antithesis of consulting. Someone on the communications team has to be able to get past this and serve as a consultant.
One common obstacle to providing communications counseling is a lack of access to the decision-makers. When there are several layers in the command chain between a communications professional and the decision-makers, it’s almost impossible to be a proper consultant. Here’s an example: a company assigns a relatively low-level staff member to oversee the work of a PR agency. This staff member tells the agency team to organize an event. The agency team asks, “What’s the goal of the event? Why an event rather than a social media campaign or other tactic?” The in-house contact, who was doing as he was told, can’t answer the question and tells the agency to wait while he checks. Often he has to go to his boss first, who goes to her boss, and when he finally responds to the agency, he has a non-answer: “My boss says this was the decision made internally.” This makes it impossible for the communications team to make recommendations that are heard by the ultimate decision-maker.
Research over the years has shown that in companies with the best reputations, the head of the communications team reports directly to the CEO. A study done in the U.S. about seven years ago showed that 58 percent of corporate communications officers were reporting directly to their CEOs.
As long as communications professionals speak up and exercise their counseling muscles, it’s often just a matter of working with clients long enough to demonstrate their value as counselors before they are treated like counselors. In situations where this doesn’t happen, they should consider whether the client is a good fit – even if their own employers are their clients. The best move may be to walk away from the relationship.
There’s an art to speaking up and giving input in a way that will make clients listen and pause to consider their initial judgments. Some people are too strident in giving advice, which can result in alienating decision-makers. Some are too soft and gentle, and don’t get the full attention of the decision-makers. Being a communications consultant and hitting just the right note is an art worth practicing and learning, because often it’s the only way to steer an organization’s communications strategy in the right direction. While organizations don’t always heed the advice of consultants, they usually listen and at least consider their input. Communications professionals who can’t or won’t be consultants to their clients end up becoming very frustrated.
By Lucy Siegel