What it means to be good at communications

I wrote a piece a while back about the joy and the pain of being a communications professional in the social sector, meaning, those of us who communicate for positive social change. This piece is a sibling to that one, about what it means to actually be good at these sorts of jobs, versus not-so-good (IMHO).

One: Special skills versus the fundamentals

Communications jobs have changed drastically in some ways, and not so drastically in other ways. How they’ve changed the most: specialization. When I came of age in this field, in my mid- to late twenties, I really could get by with just a few skills, like writing and editing and project management and just, you know, showing up on time and being an eager-beaver when it came to extra work. (I probably should’ve developed more skills in media relations and pitching back then, because to this day, I still try to avoid it like the plague.)

But as I’ve said many times before, digital changed everything. The first time I worked with a communications department divided up by specialty—i.e., different teams for email and social, for print design and digital design, for program communications and marketing communications—I remember being impressed by how specialized the skills and talent of each team really were. Wait, what: how does Facebook connect to engagement with our website? How do we disseminate our stories and express our mission across multiple platforms and channels? Highly, highly specialized stuff.

However, I also remember that despite this highly-specialized communications culture, I was always harping on and trying to teach the fundamentals—like messaging, strategy, and brand–to everyone, regardless of their specialized role. Because those are the fundamental communications skills, which I’d argue will always be perennially relevant. You will always need to understand messaging, strategy, and brand (identity and positioning). You will always need to understand who your priority audiences are and you will aways need to care about how to successfully engage with them, because that’s what communications is fundamentally about.

So I guess I’d say that being good at a communications job, nowadays, is about knowing your specialty. Like, if you’re a social media specialist, I hope you can tell me what works to engage audiences on those platforms and why it’s worth our investment to engage with those audiences. And being good at communications is also about knowing your fundamentals. Sometimes, I felt a twinge of irritation at how much the email people would obsess over subject lines, even though they’d show me, through A/B testing results, that different subject lines would yield different open rates. But that twinge always dissipated if I read the body of the email and it reflected the fundamental aspects of good messaging and brand strategy.

Two: Knowing the subject matter

In every phase of my career, I’ve encountered people who are clearly much more about executing the tactics related to any communications effort and are much less about the actual subject matter of the effort. There is an upside to these tacticians, in that you can count on them to track timelines and deadlines and not leave the smallest detail overlooked. Every project with multiple moving parts needs those sorts of people. But the downside, to me, is that these people often don’t understand strategy or the big picture—why the effort matters, what we’re really trying to accomplish with the communications strategy, and how the communications strategy aligns with (or doesn’t) the other parts of the work.

What I’m about to say next will sound like shade so I may as well come clean and admit, I’m about to throw shade: I tend to encounter these traffic-cop sorts more on the corporate/private side than I do in the social sector. A very long time ago, I worked on a social impact project about preventing blindness from a disease common in less-developed countries, with a very large company that shall remain unnamed. And I remember that the lead on the corporate side was incredibly brisk and efficient when it came to scoping out the work and the To-Do list. But during a discussion about the logo for the initiative, this person said, “I like the logo, but can we please remove the eyelashes from the eyes? Because it clutters up the design.” The disease experts and others in that meeting fell silent and then one of them awkwardly said, “Uh, we can’t do that—because the disease itself causes eyelashes to turn inwards and eventually fall out, which is what causes the blindness.”

I should add that this person was completely unbothered by this correction and eventually got promoted at the company for her work in leading that project, which is understandable—the rewards on the corporate/private side are different than those on the nonprofit side, and she was rewarded for her efficiency and initiative. But in the social sector, I think that having communications people who don’t know the subject matter is bad for our business, so to speak. Communications functions are often not as well-resourced in the nonprofit world as they are in the corporate world, even though it feels inarguable that you can’t create social impact or movement without engaging partners and allies and winning over skeptics. So although it’s rare to meet the tactics-only people on the public interest side, I do get frustrated when I encounter them. (Although I would say it’s a mild frustration—more like a side head-tilt on my part, like, “hmmmm, something feels slightly off here.”)

I know that some people would argue that people in more administrative or coordinating positions—like project managers, for example—don’t need to know the subject matter, they just need to keep everyone else involved and the work itself organized so the project can move forward. But I don’t agree with that, actually—the best project managers and coordinators I’ve worked with demonstrate purpose and big-picture understanding even when completing the most minor of tasks, like putting together meeting agendas. They’re the ones who seem to really get what the project’s all about and they’re also tracking every little detail. The only minor wrinkle with these sorts of people is that very soon, they will not want to be project managers or coordinators anymore and in fact, should be promoted to more senior strategic positions as soon as they get more experience under their belt.

Three: Empathetic imagination

I was originally going to describe this attribute more straightforwardly as empathy—meaning, the ability to feel something for the people and groups who you’re trying to support through a communications effort. But I think this quality is about more than being able to simply feel something for your target audiences. It’s actually the quality of actually being able to see things from another person’s perspective, which requires a great deal of imagination in addition to empathy. The character of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird put it this way: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

The best communications professionals I know in the social sector have this quality. They also have the imagination to figure out different ways to express this empathetic imagination—the stories that will get right to the heart of a matter, the tweets that will cut through all the white noise and nonsense to make a profoundly true point.

As I’ve written about before, this quality of empathetic imagination is getting increasingly difficult to sustain, these days, when so many bad people are doing bad things and insisting that we be scared of trans and queer people and teaching kids about slavery and racism while ignoring the millions of people who are dying from guns and climate change and the abolishment of our human rights. But I would argue that this part of being good at communications is a renewable skill/attribute. For every shit story on the internet about a bad person getting away with doing bad things, you can also find a story of someone doing something good. All job-related skills and attributes, for that matter, benefit from periodic renewal and refreshment. Physicians and lawyers are required to get continuing education credits as part of their licensing; while I don’t think communications professionals should be subject to the same requirements, I do wish it was more expected, that we would dedicate a part of our work lives to shoring up our skills and knowledge. (Organizations like The Communications Network, the Opportunity Agenda, and the Radical Communicators Network are good resources for doing this.)

If you’re new to communications in the social sector, I hope you find people who support you in developing these skills and attributes. I never forget about the younger generations of communications professionals who are rising to the top–hell, who may already BE at the top–and while I applaud them for the many things they know that I don’t, I also want them to learn the things that, time and time again, have helped me do this job well.