What does it take to be a bridge builder?
I’ve always thought that communicators are essentially bridges. They provide a link between audiences; it’s a role that requires a deep understanding of both sides. Thinking of yourself as a bridge stops people confusing shouting for PR.
But, it also strikes me that not everyone is equipped or allowed to do the job.
It applies to all comms roles
Whether you work in media relations or change communications, the bridge metaphor seems to work pretty well.
Our job is to explain one group of people to another. A press officer has to know what a journalist is interested in and how they’ll react but they also have to know their own organisation well enough to explain it. A financial PR helps analysts see what their client is trying to achieve and an internal communicator knows the workforce, its tastes, its fears and its hopes well enough to explain things in terms that make sense to them.
But crucially, the traffic has to go both ways
The media specialist can explain why the press are going to lambast a particular strategy and the IC manager should be able to point out which policies won’t work. It’s not about explaining what’s going to be unpopular; it’s about highlighting that your audience can see things that are not always obvious to anyone else.
We’ve all had the experience of staff telling management that a new brand or product is doomed to failure. And although not everyone gets the experience of management actually listening it’s our job to be on hand to be the conduit for the feedback.
And, as debate about the meaning of engagement continues to roll on, professionals who see the importance of affective and participative connections are especially concerned with the value of deep audience understanding.
Being the preferred crossing route
Smart communications pros know that they are not the only way to cross between two sides. Senior leaders will have their own channels to reach staff and good journalists will have their own contacts inside an organisation regardless of the efforts of the press office to control access.
But when people feel the need to find their own crossing points they open themselves and their organisation to a variety of risks. Managers with back channels to the media might not know the real story. Talking down the pub to analysts can be an open invitation to regulatory investigation and things quickly get out of control when an Executive Team starts speculating about workforce understanding based on a few chats with their PA and the guy who guards the car park.
A comms manager can’t and shouldn’t hope to suppress all unofficial communications. Yet they need to make connections that are trusted and valued.
Five essential capabilities
Nearly a decade ago Sue Dewhurst and I asked internal communicators what skills and experience they needed to do their jobs well. Some of the answers we got seemed to apply equally well to communications regardless of the specialism. Building and maintain a robust bridge relies on a few essential capabilities.
• It’s about the business
Communication should have an impact on real issues and objectives. A communicator who can’t tell you what keeps the Board awake at night isn’t likely to be solving any problems or adding value
• Make data your friend
Having evidence to back up your hunches saves a lot of grief and points communication in the right direction. The days when idle speculation could be passed off as a measured strategy are long gone.
Being a data-rational communicator isn’t terribly challenging; it’s a question of having ways to listen to your audiences, understanding the difference between process and results and presenting your findings in a way that aids decision-making.
• Execution, execution, execution
A beautifully drawn plan of a bridge isn’t of much use; communicators are in the business of actually making things happen.
• Right tools for the job
Great communicators have a wide repertoire of tools for connection their audiences. A mix of channels to push out information, to listen to reaction, to stimulate collaboration and to generate excitement are all part of the kitbag.
• Being a black-belt at relationship building
We’ve all cringed in job interviews when the candidate says he or she is a ‘people person’ but it does matter. In the 2016 European Communications Monitor it comes out as one of the top skills needed by senior leaders and when Sue and I did our research we were told that star communicators worked well with people regardless of their status, were adept at using personal influence, were great negotiators and were connected across their organisations.
Of course, there are other competencies required for comms folks – Sue and I uncovered a core set of 12 and the IABC offers six essential principles – but I wanted to highlight the idea that we all need be bridges and that has implications for our capabilities.
When I think about the amazing people I’ve worked with over the years in change communications; my heroes are all brilliant connectors. And for many it wasn’t an innate ability but they found that working at it, getting out and about and striking up conversations paid off in a way that few other capabilities would.