The Joy and Pain of Communicating (Professionally)

After decades of working at jobs with “communications” in the titles, I am now prepared to put forward some definitions pertaining to the practice of communications (in the professional sense), and some observations (based on a N of one–me) about what brings a communications professional joy, and also, pain.

THE PRACTICE of communications: when your job is to help an entity—an individual, an organization, sometimes even an entire field—figure out what they want to say about what they’re doing, figure out who they want to say this to, and finally, what constitutes success or impact if the communications strategy or plan is executed well.

THE TOOLS of communications usually include: messages (words that engage the hearts and the minds of your intended audience members), narratives (your messages captured as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, that explains what you are trying to do and why people should care), and strategy and tactics (the plan and the steps for how you’re going to get your messages and narratives out there).

THE UNDER-VALUED TOOL of the communications professional: Listening. Understanding who your audiences really are, and what makes them tick. “Listening” sometimes takes the form of “research,” or “audience research,” which often costs a lot of money to the listening entity, although I have noticed that once the research investment is made, people simply can’t get enough of the results. They gobble them up, like potato chips.

THE PLATFORMS for communicating are not to be confused with the tools. Platforms, or channels, are the vehicles to convey your messages and narratives to your desired audiences. When I began working as a communications professional, our “platforms” were press releases (faxed) and print publications, like annual reports. Digital changed everything. Sometimes, showing up on all of these platforms can feel exciting and expansive, full of possibilities for reaching audiences hitherto unavailable to you. Sometimes, it can feel like how I felt watching the Beastie Boys perform live when the opening chords of “Sabotage” began, and my then-boyfriend, now-husband yanked me out of the way of people who had suddenly started violently flinging themselves about. (Lollapalooza, 1994. I’m dating myself, but I needed to express a feeling.)

THE DOWNSIDES of being a communications professional: There is a noticeable tendency for the “content experts” to look down their noses at you. They might think you don’t know the subject matter. (And you are going to prove them so wrong, aren’t you?) They might have fancier-sounding degrees than you do. They do not treat your talent to turn their incomprehensible, snooze-inducing thoughts into clear, compelling messages as anything special. When you engage in Laocoon-like struggles with their 50-page research paper that no one would ever read in its full PDF form and emerge, triumphant, with an amazing communications strategy to share the findings with journalists and policymakers and other researchers, they could very well shrug and say, “meh.”

ANOTHER DOWNSIDE of being a communications professional is that non-communications professionals will think every possible function and task involving words falls to you. They will ask you for a full-on communications strategy and a weekly New York Times headline and they will also ask you to build a new website—all on your own, never mind that you never learned coding or design. They will ask you to grow Facebook and Twitter followers and they will also ask you for a new marketing brochure. You will never, ever get past the lurking suspicion that all non-communications professionals really see you as that kid in 7th grade from the A/V Club, the one in the striped tee-shirt with the bad haircut who would now be viewed as “geeky-cool,” the one who was called in periodically by the science teacher to fix the film projector. You will occasionally wonder why people treat you like you are their PowerPoint bitch. (H/T to my good friend who coined that phrase, who is welcome to claim credit in the comments.)

THE JOY of being a communications professional is when you come up with a great communications strategy and it succeeds. You will never achieve this all by yourself, mind you: communications is a team sport. (There is no “I” in team.) But if you are smart and good at your job, you will know exactly how your communications expertise and leadership skills contributed to a really powerful breakthrough moment, to building a movement, to helping people advocate for real change. Like when you lead an effort to develop an amazing set of messages (variously referred to as a “message map,” a “message platform,” or some other goofy term) to explain some really ground-breaking and illuminating research that’s just come out, and after months of outreach and education about why this research matters, you maybe one day could hear the President of the United States amplify those messages! HOLY MACKEREL. It is AMAZING when you hear words and thoughts that you’ve helped shape and direct echoed back to you. It is also amazing when you see people start to care about the issues you want them to care about. And it is freakin’ NIRVANA when you help people shape and share their stories in ways that move people to act.

ANOTHER JOY of being a communications professional? Gratitude. And mutual respect. Like, when you recognize that someone is really good at what they do—like being a doctor, or a scientist, for example—but they are not very good at communicating about what they do or why they do it, and you help them with that, and the results are a win-win for both of you. They recognize and admire you for making their life’s work sing with angels’ voices; you recognize and admire them for being such a bad-ass visionary and leader in their field.

Oh, and finally? I don’t know if any profession comes without fairly equal measures of joy and pain. (I seriously do wonder if people caring for baby pandas and orphaned wild animals suffer from job stress.)  I share the upsides and downsides of being a communications professional because it makes the love I have for the career that found me all that more real, and meaningful.