Communications is Everything (or Not)

I have decided opinions about bagels (as I do about almost anything) and I will say that while I do not dislike the Everything bagel, I do not fundamentally get the Everything bagel. I am relatively straightforward when it comes to bagel flavors—to me, a good bagel has to commit to one primary flavor (cinnamon raisin is pushing it), and be deliciously chewy and soft, and serve as the appropriate vehicle for a great spread.

Like bagels, there are some people who want Everything Communications. What is Everything Communications? Everything Communications is what organizations want when they are seeking to have more impact through communications, so they throw in every possible flavor and function of communications into the job descriptions for the roles they’re seeking.

Everything Communications is not a bad thing when the organization or company is prepared to devote adequate resources—headcount, budget, and institutional support—to effective communications. If you cast your eye over the communications team for a large corporation, for example, you will see many indications that Everything Communications is the preferred approach of that company AND the company is interested in devoting beaucoup resources to the approach. You will see clues like: a distinction between internal communications and external communications, the latter is often called “marketing,” although there are external communication functions that are not marketing, like government relations. You will see a bigger spread when it comes to allocating distinct communications functions among different roles—so, for example, the person who is primarily in charge of “executive communications and thought leadership support” is not the same person who handles social media marketing, or digital brand strategy.

Everything Communications is troubling to me, however, when I read job descriptions where a kabillion communication job responsibilities are mashed into one job, or sliced and diced paper-thin between a few positions. This is not uncommon in the nonprofit world, unfortunately, so you get teams of one or two or three people who are supposed to handle everything, meaning, the organization’s got to have a gorgeous website, elevate the profile of the work through media pitching and story placement; email supporters; maintain an active presence on various social media platforms; and oh by the way, in your spare time, can you manage to whip out some talking points and slides for the CEO and somehow conjure up a gorgeous video that will make people weep into their tears and cause donations to skyrocket?

There are some communication job descriptions I read that are so lengthy, so Everything Communications without any support or commitment behind the approach, that I snort out loud as I read them. I look in vain to see whether there are sufficient warm bodies to carry out this ambitious set of communication activities; nope. If the organization is really, truly proposing what I call a “onesie-twosie” shop (in the healthcare world, that meant a solo or two-person physician practice), then I look for the dreaded line: “May rely on external contractors for additional support.” This line can be translated into, “You will be a one-person communications shop, but we are so anal about administrative leanness, we don’t want to hire anyone else. However, we will let you hire consultants.” Don’t get me wrong—this is not a bad approach, per se, and I’ve worked with many smart and gifted consultants in my time—but let me be clear: even though hiring consultants can add to your communications capabilities, managing consultants still involves work. Repeat after me: managing consultants still involves work.

There should be, I think, rules of the road when it comes to Everything Communications, for organizations prepared to devote a LOT of resources AND for organizations that don’t yet have the funds or the commitment to do so.

For organizations that want the whole kahuna, the full range of communications job functions that include external and internal communications of all stripes and colors, then my biggest pieces of advice are:

Role definition, role definition, role definition. Every job description should share some common themes—like branding responsibilities, or messaging, or writing, dear God, writing and editing!—but should clearly indicate who’s got primary psychological responsibility for a distinct set of job functions. As an example, I think it’s almost a core requirement to have a team of people responsible for social media as part of any modern communications shop. However, how broadly are you defining their roles? Are they doing social media for advocacy, for marketing and promotion, or both? And how are their jobs distinct from the folks who run the website and email programs? (They can’t possibly be the same people.)

Integration, integration, integration. The larger and more multi-functional your communications team gets, the more easily confused everyone else at the organization is about who does what. This results in many, many crossed wires and mixed signals—in the largest department I’ve worked in, it was not uncommon to have people contact the social media team to have emails sent out, and vice versa, and to encounter absolutely zero understanding of the fact that the audiences for the Facebook channel might not exactly the same as the people following the Twitter handle. So companies investing in Everything Communications should also invest in internal and external educational tools for people to understand how to successfully access communication resources (which may result in less finger-snapping towards communications staff, always a worthy goal). And, they should also support regular opportunities for the entire department to coalesce around big-picture strategic priorities—otherwise, the Everything Communications department will feel scattered and chaotic, without shared goals or purpose.

For organizations that do not yet have the resources to support an Everything Communications department, my biggest pieces of advice are:

Scale back your expectations. If you’ve got a tiny communications team and a tiny budget, pick your shots—think about what your strategic priorities are when it comes to communications impact. Is it media coverage? Fine, create a press secretary position or some equivalent, or hire a consultant to do ongoing story development and media pitching. Is the area of work particularly complex? Fine, hire a person with deep background knowledge in the subject matter, but with a proven track record of demystifying complicated topics to target audiences and creating compelling narratives and messages.

Show-and-tell. If you’ve got big ambitions, but tiny resources, the only way you’re going to grow your resources to match your ambitions is to demonstrate the success of what you chose to invest in. So be a champion for your own communication efforts. You’d be surprised at how often communication professionals forget to share exciting news—we’re so on the go, go, go, thinking about the next great story or girding our loins for the next crisis, we often forget to just let our colleagues know: hey, this good thing just happened.

–Finally, scale back your expectations. Seriously, needed to say that again. If you expect Everything Communications from the get-go, without adequate resources, I can tell you what you are likely to get: Nothing Communications.

If you want an Everything bagel, however: sure, why not? Go wild.

My favorite bagel combinations (I don’t really eat them that much anymore, because carbs):

–Sesame bagel, toasted, thin application of scallion cream cheese, whitefish salad

–Sesame bagel, toasted, butter, grape jelly

–Sesame bagel, toasted, peanut butter

–Sesame bagel, toasted, ricotta cheese, in-season sliced tomatoes, and oregano

–Plain bagel, toasted, vegetable cream cheese

–Onion bagel, cream cheese, lox, capers