By: Shanoy Coombs
A few years ago, a colleague of mine in the Information Technology field bemoaned daily that just about no one in his organization seemed to know the full capability or capacity of an Information Technology personnel. He grumbled through several rounds of requests to service the office’s printer, to layout a greeting card for a manager, to convert files from and to PDF, to create a ‘collage of photos with music in the background’, to set up the PA system and the list goes on. I would often smile or even laugh out loud at his predicament, but often could share his pain, frustration and outright disdain because the tales he told are dead on what several persons within the broader communication field face on a daily basis.
In all my optimistic glory, I once levied the blame squarely at the feet of communicators who did not properly educate clients and employers about what Communication is and isn’t. Definitions for Communication aside, my optimistic bubble was literally inflated, mid sentence, in a meeting where I sought to espouse this grand idea for a community-level behavior change intervention. While diving into how important our messaging had to be for our audiences, a senior personnel announced (with a flick of the wrist) “And the communication people can be the ones who greet the people at the entrance of the event”. Aghast and no doubt heavily disappointed, I realized that it wasn’t so much the fact that the broader role that I was highlighting was being reduced to one of ‘welcoming guests’ but more so that the broader role of who I am as a communication personnel and the many other ways in which I could add real value was being overlooked.
Beyond that experience, I’ve interacted with several Communication personnel who have had some run-in or the other with colleagues, clients and other customers who have often misunderstood or misinterpreted their role and the dynamics of the field in which they operate. This post is therefore as important for the client and colleague as it is for the communicator who wishes to make a case for what communication is and isn’t and what the communication practitioner does and doesn’t do.
Naturally, in acknowledging the wholesomeness in diversity, I reached out to several Communication practitioners across the globe in varied fields and professions. From Public Relations Practitioners, Directors of Corporate Communication, Marketing and Communication Managers, Advocacy and Information Officers and Communication analysts in the Foreign Services, Government, Private Sector, International Organizations and NGO’s the feedback was equally varied. The simple question posed was:
What are some of the biggest misconceptions/ misunderstanding about the Communication field and the role of the Communication practitioner?
Even in their diversity, the responses largely fit one of the following three (3) categories:
- What Communication is or isn’t (the difference between communication and CommunicationS)
- Who is a Communication Practitioner?
- The “Value”of Communication to an Organization
What Communication Is or Isn’t
For starters, One senior communication personnel noted
“One of my recent pet peeves is to see that communication is now being used interchangeably with communications. I know language is dynamic but…
– Director of Public Education, Public Sector, Jamaica
and true to her pet peeve, what a big difference the S makes. In summary, CommunicationS is a system for transmitting or exchanging information – such as computers, telephones, radio and television while Communication involves individuals exchanging information or messages through shared symbols, behaviours or signs. The CommunicationS Practitioner is therefore more likely to be your cable guy or your telephone technician while the Communication Practitioner is more likely to be your Public Relations, Public Education, Advocacy or Knowledge Management Professional. Get it? So the next time you are tempted to add or subtract that S, be very mindful of what you are communicating (pun intended).
Communication can be complex or as simple as the persons engaging in the communication process. Often one of the errors in the communication cycle is one or more party believing that once the message they intend to share leaves the particular channel, communication has taken place. Feedback is often ignored as non-essential so the process is moved along without verification that the message is indeed received and understood, and that the message has been received as the sender intended.
-Assistant Corporate Communication Manager, Insurance Sector
The first myth is that communication is simply the transfer of information, just like using a computer. People aren’t like computers that process data like machines. Our communicative behavior is much more complex and part of that complexity is the fact that we don’t all respond equally to each message, even to the same message sent over and over in a different context. If we assume, therefore, that once we have sent a message, it will obviously be correctly received, we set ourselves up for communication failures.
These are things that communication experts have to take into consideration when drafting a story, a press release or any other form of communication. Contrary to others beliefs, communication is not about just sharing information but rather about exerting influence and encouraging behavioral change. The goal of communication is not simply telling, but acting, changing people’s behavior through what we say to them. If communication is solely just the transfer of information then our jobs would be easy because it does not take much active effort to transfer information [like computers].
-Communication Manager, Global Health and Wellness Company
Who is a Communication Practitioner?
Largely, a wide cross section of communication professional highlighted this as one of the primary misconceptions around their work.
The biggest misunderstanding is that everyone is a communication practitioner because he or she can speak well or has a knack for writing. Persons who view communication this way, sometimes believe there is no art or science behind communication. However, communication is a discipline that has to be approached from a strategic point of view so as to add tangible value to the organization.
Frankly, I am not saying that everyone does not have a role to play in the communication process. Because every employee for example should be a brand ambassador for your organization, however, for communication to be effective, it must be managed and coordinated primarily by a trained individual.
– Public Relations Specialist, Energy Sector, South Africa
Firstly, it’s the notion that training is not necessary for one to become a communication practitioner. That it’s something which could be done by the anyone (secretary or Admin Clerk). For me this belies any understanding of the profession and demonstrates how little value, if any, is placed on the field and the practice.
Some persons think that people in “PR” or communication should also be the chief logistics officer and so sometimes our worth is judged by our ability to execute events/activities vs landing messages and influencing behavior/thought through the actual ‘ communication ‘ work that we do.
– Marketing Communications Manager, Telecommunications Industry, Caribbean
The misconceptions/misunderstandings are so diverse and include:
1. Misconceptions that the role is ONLY about preparing press releases, brochures and doing environmental education.
2. Misconceptions that Communication is not a specialized skill and anyone can do it with enough practice.
3. Misconception that you do not need resources/money to do a communications programme.
4. Often not recognized as a major part of resource mobilization and effectively demonstrating the work of an organization.
– Knowledge Management Director, International Organization, Regional Office of the Caribbean
One of the biggest misconceptions for PR practitioners is that it is a glamorous field with little work and lots of fluff. Unfortunately people rarely see the behind the scenes that goes into what the public sees. It must be understood that PR is a strategists role which requires proper planning and precise execution.
– Integrated Marketing Communications Officer, Private Sector, Jamaica
Sadly some companies don’t fully appreciate the creative process, and are unwilling to invest in the tools/training/resources needed to create quality outputs.
– Communication Officer, Private Sector, Guyana
The “Value”of Communication to an Organization
Looking at it from a reputation management perspective…if your actions were not genuine and caused your reputation to be damaged communications/PR alone can’t “white wash” or redeem your situation. There are several other factors to be considered which requires some joint strategies coined in collaboration with affected parties and other key stakeholders.
– Public Relations Officer, Private Sector, Germany
While there is such an extensive role for the communication practitioner, a huge misconception is the attitude that Communication (especially PR) is only necessary if the company or individual is facing a crisis. Outside of that the practitioner is seen as adding little value to the bottom line.
Communication practitioners are constantly being asked to explain what value they bring to the Organization. In essence, are we getting value for money when we hire you? This affects the level of remuneration for practitioners, and how they are integrated into the wider planning processes of the organization. Far too often, their involvement in projects come after the project has been designed and not during the design phase.
A big misconception is the ongoing confusion of what is PR versus Spin versus marketing, and the ethics guiding the profession.
There is the tendency to focus more on measurement and evaluation of communication outputs and products and pay scant attention to other qualitative outcomes.
– Communication Consultant, International Organization, Guyana
A grave misconception is that communication is just about issuing press releases and that the practitioner just needs to be able to write. In fact they need to be a good analyst and strategist.
-Diplomatic Relations, United States of America
One of the most common offence that people often make is to think that communication persons are all fluff…persons that just attend events and write press releases. Yet a communication person is the first point of contact when it comes to a person’s perception of a particular brand. I say first because even when persons view finished marketing material that material had to go through a communication process to ensure that the messaging is what the business wants to translate to its customers.
– Assistant Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, Caribbean Insurance sector
People regard communication as passive meaning we easily send out our messages and let them take their course without even bothering to reinforce them or check to see if others received it. However, when people start to begin seeing communication as exerting influence and shaping behaviours then we will realize that it is anything but passive. Communication practitioners have to actively and carefully attend to the messages that they send. We have to be cognizant of the unintentional messages that we might end up sharing so we have to always manage our communication strategically, making sure we make the most of the messages we send considering all the other scenarios that could arrive.
-Behaviour Communication Change Officer, Health Sector
I find communication is used as a broad brush term with too little appreciation for the nuances of the various communication disciplines-development communication , Public Relations, Marketing, Advertising, Internal communication, Corporate Communication etc.
-Communications Programme Lead, Public Sector
There is the notion that because your the ‘comms person’-you are supposed to speak a lot, be outgoing, master presentations and speeches, do events, capture images -everything- when some persons are not fully trained for all elements.
In recent times, I have also found that Change Management is easily thrown into the Communication process though disciplines such as Organizational Development exist to address such specifications. So an organization may be going through changes and it is anticipated that the communication practitioner should know how to manage the entire change process. I however believe that planning communications and sensitization programmes are quite different from selling. Looking back , the Social marketing programme offering at my uiniversity was probably the best taught discipline to be ready for the diverse Communication sector work demands.
– Communications Specialist, Public Sector Jamaica
I think that communication Practitioners are generally under appreciated which is too unfortunate as they have a powerful network to leverage so they should always be advised when important decisions are made.
– Health Insurance Sector, United States of America
To add to the list of misconceptions, a major one that has stood out for me over the years is that just about every organization knows or believes that communication is important but few know why and even fewer know how to integrate same into their varied planning processes. True to form, several colleagues will agree that too often, the communication practitioner is just about obliterated from the planning process and are often called in on the back end simply to ‘generate visibility’ around outcomes.
Additionally, and as several colleagues have shared, there continues to be a mass dumping of “other tasks” under the communication portfolio. Largely, when a task does not stand out as finance, engineering, Information Technology or administration, it often gets pushed under the communication portfolio.
While just a minor representation of the broader issues faced within the Communication industry, the views above give some insights about challenges that will need to be addressed and navigated by clients, customers and colleagues if strategic objectives are to be addressed well strategically.