If you are a communication professional, then you have probably experienced that moment of frustration when you’ve given vitally important advice to your boss, but it landed on deaf ears or they didn’t seem to be interested at all in what you had to say. You may also know that feeling when the event or consequence you warned the boss about actually happens, and then you have to scramble and try to fix something that was completely preventable.
This frustration is common in the communication field and explainable. In some instances, the boss simply doesn’t know what you do. In others, they may think that they know what you do but they couldn’t be more wrong. This misalignment often leads to you being marginalized in your role and doing work that does not capitalize on your professional capabilities. For some communication professionals that can mean becoming a glorified speech writer or copy editor; for others it means planning company events or posting what others write on the company website. But for all – the frustration is real.
The Good News
The good news is that this is preventable (assuming you have a reasonable boss who wants to do well). Part of the challenge for communication professionals is that we often become our own worst enemy. As professional communicators we tend to focus on the communication itself and in the process fail to speak to the direct concerns of our boss.
To win a seat at the table and get your boss to listen to you, communication professionals should keep in mind the following mantra:
It isn’t about the communication. It is about the effect of the communication.
One of the sad realities is that as communicators, we know that communication is a rigorous, strategic discipline. But the word ‘communication’ itself is confusing. Because if you think of communication as reading, writing, and speaking – well, we’ve all been doing that our whole lives, so we must be very good at it and your boss probably feels the same way.
“The true value of a professional communicator is not that we can string words and sentences together and get them out into the right hands,” explains Helio Fred Garcia, the president of Logos Consulting Group.“The value of the communicator is that we can influence those who matter to our bosses to feel, think, know, or do something they otherwise would not.”
One way communication professionals can think about what they do is to understand their role as “applied anthropologists.”
This idea was first espoused by the father of public relations, Edward L. Bernays. Bernays explained in Crystallizing Public Opinion, “Public relations is a vocation applied by a social scientist who advises a client or employer on social attitudes and the actions to take to win support of the public upon whom the viability of the client depends.” In other words, the professional communicator shapes the opinions of those they try to influence.
Nearly a century after this book was published, the idea of the communication professionals’ function as an applied social scientist still holds true. With this concept in mind, the communicator understands the social and power relationships within groups and among groups. And the applied part of anthropologists is that the communication professional knows how to then engage any given group to secure a predictable outcome.
“As professional communicators our job is to predict the future – to know the reaction and counter reaction to everything we do,” said Garcia. “If we subject this group to stimulus A for example, then we can predict how they will react, and to stimulus B…to stimulus C…and so on.”
This predictive ability is the value that communication professionals can bring to the table. Therefore, if you want the boss to listen to you, you need to demonstrate this predictive ability when you give advice to your boss.
It is not enough to say, “We need to release this statement.” The key is to focus on the outcome you seek, and then lay out the steps required to move those who matter to your boss to think, feel, know, and do what is necessary to reach that desired outcome. The strategic discipline to keep in mind, however, is that we must never make communication decisions on personal preference, but rather on the desired reaction and outcome.
The more you as a communication professional can show that you can predict the future and provoke the desired action to reach a desired outcome, the more respected your function will be and the more likely your boss will invite you to take a coveted seat at the table.
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