comms people: be bold, be the bit of grit in the oyster

One piece of advice keeps coming back again and again... and that's as a comms person to sometimes say 'that's a really bad idea' to senior people.  


by Dan Slee 

If there is one piece of advice I came to late in my career that I value in my career it is this... the role of comms is sometimes to be the bit of grit in the oyster.

It was Paul Willis of Leeds Metropolitan University who I first hear use the phrase.

Really?

What the heck does this mean?

My take on it is that sometimes, the role of the comms person is to politely stand your ground and to challenge and to point out where things won’t work.

The chief exec of the water company blamed for water shortage taking questions with a clean bottle of water, British Gas staging a Twitter Q&A on the day of a price hike or senior officer hellbent on back of bus ads… because that’s the way they’ve always done it.

I was reminded of the need for this a short while back in a comms planning workshop where one attendee mentioned the pressure she was under to come up with evaluation weeks after the launch of a campaign to encourage people to sign-up to volunteer for a specific task.

"It's really difficult," she said. "I'm getting pressure to show if the campaign is a success but we know it takes six months for it to work. 

"It’s been a month and the thing is, it's really difficult, because it's a senior person who is asking."

Of course, in an ideal world that senior person would immediately see the folly of asking how many cars the Forth Bridge had carried after just a week into its construction.

But life is not like that.

So, if tact and diplomacy don’t work, sometimes your role as a comms person is to be the person to draw a line in the sand and point out where something, in your professional opinion, doesn’t work.

When I worked as part of a comms team I'd often find it useful instead of directly rubbishing an idea directly just spelling out the logical sequence of events that decision would bring.

"We can have a back of bus advert by all means," it's better to say, "but do we know if the Primary school children we're trying to get through to drive? And how many signed up for that course last year as a result of it? Could we talk to some parents and teachers to see what the best route may be, too?"

Be professional, be polite but never be afraid be the grit in the oyster. It will almost always be the harder path but if you take it you will almost always win respect. Involve your boss if needs be. Or their boss.

If you don’t are you sure you aren’t just being a glorified shorthand typist?

Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.

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