If you’re a career communicator you may, like me, have felt at times like somehow the work you do is undervalued or misunderstood.
Comms is largely a ‘support function’, or as some others prefer to see it, part of the unseemly opex-sucking black hole that’s everything ‘marketing’.
In many organizations I’ve worked with, marketing has been used as a rude work to represent the superficial and fluffy, not something business-critical or necessary. I always found that pretty insulting since very often, as today, marketing and communications have formed the core of my job title.
As a supporting function to the business, we communicators promote, cajole, coach, stroke and smooth executives and their messages into something that looks and sounds as nice as possible. But how important or valued is that endeavor compared to the ‘hard metrics’ of year-on- year growth, sales success or shareholder dividends?
When I started in communications it was (whisper it!) 1995. PR was something I fell into by accident and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t just a little bit embarrassed by my career choice. In those days, PR was synonymous with something flimsy, a little seedy and insincere. That was the era when Max Clifford ruled the UK tabloids and was giving the PR industry a bad name by feeding the hacks increasingly scurrilous headlines.
Never one to give up, I gave it a good go. But finally after seven years in agency and another four years in in-house PR roles I couldn’t wait to distance myself.
In 2007 I deliberately took an executive communications role at tech giant Cisco, because I was sick of being typecast as ‘the PR girl’. The focus of my new job was much more about creating and communicating strategy and generating internal audience engagement, so I set about learning the business and spent as much time as possible with the senior executives I supported.
This, in turn, gave me lots of opportunity. I spent the next 10 years moving around various roles – marketing, sales enablement, customer engagement, inside sales.
But the funny thing I learned is that whatever role I did, I found that the key to my success was the ability to communicate with impact. Sure, I could learn some new skills or tactics, wield a spreadsheet and be responsible for a P&L, but at the end of the day, the most critical differentiator between success and failure was always great communication.
At some point a couple of years ago, the penny dropped and I finally stopped feeling cautious or embarrassed about talking about what I do. After all, communication skills are always in fashion and in vast demand by employers.
When assessing senior staff who have technical competence, the differentiator that denotes a future leader is very often whether they are able to demonstrate or develop communications skills to engage with their people. It’s recognized as a table stake for great leadership and something that holds you back if you don’t have it.
And in an era where everyone is freaking out about the possibility that their job could be obliterated by a robot, I think that practicing the ‘dark arts’ of communications is a pretty safe choice for long-term employment.
Sure, you could program a machine to create copy, but can you ever program one to begin to understand the human heart and soul?
Can you teach a robot to identify the very core of human reactions or stimulate the right response in different audiences?
Could a robot create a set of words or a turn of phrase that makes your heart sing? I think not.
We communicators should be proud of a lot of things. When the proverbial excrement is hitting the fan, who do they call for? That’s right, the comms team are pretty much the first people on speed-dial to be drafted in to save the day.
When I was working for a large consumer brand back in 2002, I received one such call. The resulting reputational crisis consumed the next four months of my life. With hard work and careful handling I demonstrated myself to be indispensable to the Board at that point.
In fact my work on that particular project was highly visible and marked me out for roles outside of communications because it was recognized that I had commercial awareness required for success in general management.
We all communicate, but relatively few people have the capability to communicate well. I’ve come to respect the skill involved in delivering excellent communication. No, not everyone can do it well. Yes, it’s intensely valuable. And yes, if you do it well, you should be proud.
Communications will always be a little in the shadows, even if it’s well understood and respected within an organization. But I’m confident that however business evolves, there will always be a seat at the table for great communicators.