Audience segmentation, Communication, Communication Consultant, Communication for Development, Communication Practitioner, Communication Tips, Development Communication, Public Relations

Communicators know: The “General Public” isn’t so “General” after all…


By: Shanoy Coombs

A few weeks ago, I was invited on a panel to assess a series of University behavior change campaigns. I sat, intrigued and engaged as varied final year students went into the strategies and tactics they intended to use to reach their different audiences. As one group presented, they went into how they’d effectively utilize traditional forms of communication to reach the “general public”.  The group went on to highlight why radio was selected and the intended outcome via that medium.

As the panel queried the reason for radio for a community level intervention, a team member shrugged “Well we want everyone to know about it”.  A series of questions, comments and other suggestions later, it was revealed that radio would not have been the ideal medium for the audience in question.  In fact, it was revealed that a direct community level intervention such as a community/town hall meeting would have been more appropriate and effective to achieve the intended objectives.

This example brings me back to current realities where the “general public” is a constant phrase in several communication programme discussions.  You may have heard the term tossed around as you were briefed by a programmes unit, head of office, Managing Director and CEO.  Often it is accompanied by the words “We want everyone to know what we are doing”. Realistically, wanting “everyone to know” is not a bad objective, however as many communicators should be able to advise, within that “everyone” group can be found several specific groups including youth, children, adults, men, women, senior citizens, English Speakers, people who listen to the radio, those who watch TV at specific times, those who read specific publications and even those who only consume content from electronic platforms.  I say all of this to say, generally, audiences are not so general after all.  Continue reading “Communicators know: The “General Public” isn’t so “General” after all…”

Communication, Communication Practitioner, Uncategorized

Misconceptions of Communication: What Colleagues, Clients and Customers need to know

Misconceptions of Communication

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:

  1. What Communication is or isn’t (the difference between communication and CommunicationS)
  2. Who is a Communication Practitioner?
  3. 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.
As a point of entry, what has worked in my line of duty are clear definitions around the organization’s, project’s or processes needs and the value the communication practitioner can add to same.  In the longer term, there has to be consistent and open dialogue between clients, customers and colleagues around the miscommunication and other shortfalls in the process, so they can be effectively addressed.
Are you a Communication Practitioner? Can you relate to the aforementioned challenges? What are some of the biggest misconceptions you have encountered to date? How have you worked through some of these misconceptions? Share with us below.
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 Misconceptions of Communication

 Shanoy Coombs is a Development Communication Consultant in the Latin America and Caribbean region.  Are you Social? Connect with Shanoy  on twitter via @InspiraShan and learn more about her work via the projects page.

Communication, Communication Consultant, Flexibility, Remote work

The Modern Communicator + the case for balance and flexibility

Modern COmmunicator

As I write this,  I’m off exploring sections of the African continent on what has now become a  ‘workcation’: Between visiting heritage sites, hanging with Nelson Mandela’s grandson, safari and African Village tours, I’ve been checking emails and responding to messages (including urgent work related whats app prompts) with a 7 hour time difference to boot. Between sips of my favourite wines, I also compile a detailed to-do list. Later on today,  I’ll edit a project document (including an issue brief) and even later this week,  I’ll update a visibility plan around revised targets and expanded needs before making plans to visit a diamond mine and wine tour.  I mention this to put into perspective how the labour landscape has evolved in line with Information, Communication Technologies (ICTs), the need for attendant flexibilities and how to manage the sometimes blurred lines between work and personal space.

I suppose I have always been an advocate for remote work as circa 2006 when I began my communication journey, I sought to promote the “working remotely concept” which was then met with much scepticism.  After all,  it was then widely believed that you needed to be in office to convince your superiors that tasks were being completed.

Fast forward to 2007 when I operated in the fast paced Advertising and Marketing industry. By default,  extended hours,  late night into morning events (cue Magnum Kings and Queens of Dancehall), an ongoing work cycle (weekends,  holidays and then some)  dictated that some flexibility is offered to compensate for the extenuating circumstances. Note too, that Public Relations, Communications and Event Management consistently rank in the top 10 most stressful jobs.

With a mix of challenges, my foray into Local Area Marketing in the Food Services Industry;   Communication in Government services; Development Communication in the Foreign Services and several rounds of Corporate Communication brought with it what I’d like to call a “better appreciation” for the ability of the Modern communicator to effectively operate outside the confines of an office space.

Not to be carried away, however,  this was never a “taken for granted” process and a huge part of its success rested in a balance of trust and the ability to deliver.

I do recall, for example, a time when FMCG client requirements on a lifestyle project that had multiple sponsors, required my team (myself and a  photographer) to always be two steps ahead of the competition. After all,  the PR execs of all sponsoring companies would be issuing releases and the like and the media would likely allow space to publish only one of many.  To keep ahead of the competition,  following an event that wrapped at 3:00 a.m. I had to have a draft release ready,  fill in the blanks at the end of the event and go with photographer in tow to my office about 5 blocks away to load photographs,  select best shots, caption, get client approval (literally begging them not to go to bed before I got the go ahead to hit send)  and send to media before heading off to bed. This was at a time when I put up a fight against my employer’s proposal to equip me with a blackberry.  At the time, I thought the device would be invasive outside of work hours and staunchly resisted.

It was a tough call but I lived for the thrill of meeting deadlines even if it meant getting content off at 3:30 a.m via an office desktop.   This dedication to the task built confidence and trust around work ethic.  Positively, it set the precedence for what my employer and our clients could expect from me and further their confidence in my abilities in and outside of the office space. Negatively, it gave some indication that I was always accessible, available and willing to deliver even at the expense of personal space.

Later on within the United Nations system,  I again had a tough sell. Very important overseas family engagement being matched up against a major global observation that I would be responsible for coordinating in three Caribbean territories.  I pulled on every prior right that I had ever done to convince the country representative that not only was I capable but I would also deliver all required elements in a timely manner and so it is that I ventured off on a “work-cation” which is exactly what it was.  In between bridal shower,  wedding, family get together,  there was continued dialogue with a graphic designer,  printers, Local and regional office,   National Correspondents, Media and vendors.  After endless rounds of approvals,  compilations, edits and budgets,  I returned home 3 days ahead of the events with minor fixes towards a well-received execution. The positive being that I was able to manage both work and non-work priorities, the negative being that I had to share so many precious moments with bouts of work-related elements.

I highlight all of this to put into perspective that in the 21st century and beyond, the Communication dynamics have certainly evolved.  In fact, several professions require and even endorse some level of flexibility around work, given the extended and sometimes extenuating timelines.  Yet, in the same breadth, some organizations are yet to embrace the potential benefits to be had via flexible arrangements.

Just recently, I listened with empathy as a communication colleague bemoaned the fact that such a demanding workstation was yet to fully endorse ‘working remotely’ and ‘Flexible timing’.  For her, it signalled an unfair balance that needed to be addressed with some urgency.  As she put it,

“the very nature of my job cannot be classified as 9-5.  There will never be a point where I can predict some of the spontaneous organization needs that will have to be addressed with some great urgency. Imagine being called at 10:00 p.m. about a brief that was needed for 6:00 a.m, yet being denied an opportunity to work from home the following day, having spent the entire night working on the requested brief.  It only seems fair that some due consideration is given to encourage the ever fleeting work-life balance”.  

Having been in her shoes a few years prior, I was a mix of heartened and concerned by the International Labour Organization recently published findings around remote/flexible work options.  Under the banner “Working Anytime, Anywhere” the ILO-Eurofound report shows that the use of modern communication technologies facilitates a better overall work-life balance but, at the same time, also blurs the boundaries between work and personal life.

Having lived the remote/flexible life as an Integrated Marketing and Development Communication consultant, I widely agreed with several of the research’s findings and have found that with some employer/employee discourse, scheduling and digital disconnection, even with the worrying aspects of the research, we can be one step closer to the work-life balance.

From experience, some important guidelines include:

1. Effective Monitoring of time frames: While the modern communicator and indeed several other job-related landscapes will require some flexibility, it is important to monitor the time frames that are being allocated to work and to ‘life’.  How many of you can relate to being up until 3 am to get a jump start on a document? or if, you’re like me, getting a few hours in then getting up at 11:00 p.m. and working until it is ‘time to leave for the day’? Bad habits (even with good intentions) die hard and so I’ve often had to continuously remind myself about this and take decided steps to overcome this workaholic hurdle.

2. Make ‘personal life’ a priority: In line with my workaholic admission above, an important step is to make time for your personal life a deliberate effort.  This has included scheduled after work activities which require me to get on up and out- a gym session, a yoga class, a spa appointment, doing a pickup, supermarket run etc. Essentially, I have forced myself out to ensure that every minute is not spent working.

3. Set Realistic Expectations: This is where the employer-employee / client-patron relationship dynamics come into play. Using reasonable time factors, will it be realistic to complete the task overnight? Often, I found that while committing a task, I’ve had to assess factors such as whether or not there are third party vendors involved and the relevant lead time needed from their end and how it affects my deliverables. Also, establish early in what is ‘appropriate communications’ in line with your personal life’s boundaries… Ask and answer questions such as: Is it ok to call after x time frame? Under what circumstances? Is it ok to whats app? Am I only email accessible? Answers to these questions will help the modern communicator to better separate the lines between work and personal space.

4. Prove Your Worth: The case for remote work/flexibility may not be easy.  I’ve found that by carefully demonstrating that you are able to handle the job’s demands in and out of office has led to a process whereby trust is built.  This trust too is built on how effectively and professionally you have been able to handle similar prior engagements. Put your best foot forward and manage the communication process even while you are away from an office space and ultimately, utilize this effective management to further encourage additional flexibility.

5. Know your target: I say this in just about every blog post whether it is about communication in general, communicating over the festive season or the messages that you are communicating, yet it continues to ring true.  While you can follow all steps outlined above, it ultimately boils down to who your client/ employer is and where they are in the readiness cycle.  Within my network, communicators have all had to deal with varying degrees of readiness.  In the end, it is about how the process is managed and how you are able to convince that you will be able to deliver in tandem with the client/employer’s expectations against your own personal obligations and space requirements.

6. Disconnect Digitally: Via my Jamaican Mommies blog, I had previously written about Breaking the Social Media Curse for Better Parenting and the rules therein applies for just about every aspect of life. At the risk of having a life lived online, I am fast becoming a proponent of ‘All phones centre of the table, drinks on the first person to touch their phone’ when out with friends or “No Social Media after 10:00 p.m.” within the household space. Indeed, the same tool that has helped to facilitate remote/ flexible work can threaten to break entire relationships apart.  When advocating for additional remote/flexi time, it is, therefore, critical to ensure that you do not fall prey to digital doom.

Does your job require/allow flexible/ remote work? Have you experienced challenges when proposing same? How do you manage the work and life divide on the flexible side? Share below. I’d be happy to hear some of the existing strategies you utilize and some of the challenges to date.

Modern COmmunicator

Shanoy Coombs is a Development Communication Consultant in the Latin America and Caribbean region.  Are you Social? Connect with Shanoy  on twitter via @InspiraShan and learn more about her work via the projects page.