Internal communicators are often on the receiving end of a litany of unintentional disrespect which seems to know no bounds. It would be unthinkable to ask a colleague in accounting to ‘Just finance this up’ or a lawyer to ‘Just legal this up’ or a HR practitioner to ‘Just people this up’. So, why is it acceptable to ask an internal communications professional to ‘Just comms this up’?
‘Can you just comms this up?’ The words stabbed at my communicator’s soul like knives, as they dropped carelessly from the stakeholder’s lips. Fortunately, they were not directed at me, but they still stirred an inner rage which has become an all too familiar feeling when colleagues and others unwittingly belittle what we do with a thoughtless turn of phrase.
What do you to do in such a situation? I sought solace from my tribe by posting on Twitter and LinkedIn and asked what they thought of this poorly phrased request.
Both posts predictably produced an outpouring of reaction from people in my internal communications network and others. Thanks to everyone who took the time to like, share and comment on my posts. You are the inspiration for much of what follows here.
A litany of unintentional disrespect
Whilst ‘comms it up’ was a new one on me, others had heard it before and shared similar phrases with which I was more familiar. Here are a few, and some suggested responses from me. Feel free to use them, but be aware that some of them might be career limiting and don’t blame me if you get your P45!
‘….do a bit of comms magic’ (Have you ever seen me with a wand in my hand?)
‘….create a buzz’ (Is there a fly in the room?)
‘……Disneyfy it’ (Which do you prefer. Mickey or Donald?)
‘……weave your comms magic on this’ (Well…some say IC is a ‘craft’.)
‘……make it fluffy’ (I’ll see if there’s any under my desk where the cleaners never Vac.)
‘…..sprinkle some comms fairy dust’ (You know fairies don’t exist, don’t you?)
‘……roll it in glitter’ (Like the proverbial turd – your comms must be about redundancies then.)
‘…..make it look pretty’ (Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.)
‘……put a comms spin on it’ (You need a spin doctor for that, I’ll give Alastair Campbell a call.)
‘……push this out’ (Forget the spin doctor, I’ll call the midwife.)
‘……do your comms thing’ (Sorry I can’t help. You need Rachel Miller if you want AllthingsIC.)
‘…..Comms-ify it’ (I’m offended, I think that’s actually a slang acronym for something really rude!)
If you have the stomach for it, there’s more on the LinkedIn thread.
Now I’m not being super sensitive here, and I’m sure colleagues are not intentionally trying to belittle what we do, but why are communicators constantly on the receiving end of such a litany of unintentional disrespect which seems to know no bounds? Would it be acceptable to ask a colleague in accounting to ‘Just finance this up’ or a lawyer to ‘Just legal this up’ or a HR practitioner to ‘Just people this up’? I don’t think so.
Perhaps it’s because, despite so many of us investing huge amounts of effort to try and establish internal communication as a strategic business function and ourselves as professionals, it is still often not regarded as a serious discipline, craft or profession (choose you preferred terminology) by people working in other functions. In too many places communication is still regarded as a soft skill and a task-based activity which anyone can do.
An opportunity to start a conversation
It was encouraging to see the thick skin and pragmatism that you inevitably develop as a communicator being articulated in some of the other comments on my posts.
Some saw these inept approaches for assistance as an opportunity to start a conversation about what the communication objectives of the ‘comms it up’ request might be, to try and deliver a better outcome for the stakeholder. Others commented that such requests were in fact a veiled cry for help and an opportunity for us to demonstrate our communication skills and knowledge to the comms clueless.
I think there is something in this, and not just the bit where we deal with their request in the 20 minutes they have allowed for us to do it because they didn’t think about coming to us earlier.
These requests are in fact an opportunity to explain what we do as internal communicators, what we need to know to be one, and what we have achieved as individuals to become experts in our subject area.
We are professionals too
Coincidentally, the ‘Comms it up’ incident took place within days of the Institute of Internal Communication relaunching their excellent IoIC Profession Map. If you’re not familiar with it take a look, because it sets out what internal communicators need to know and do to work in our profession and create real business outcomes for their organisations and clients.
If some of our stakeholders saw the Profession Map, and the equally excellent Government Communication Service Competence Framework, they would probably be astonished (and possibly more respectful) at the range and breadth of competence required to work successfully in internal communication. Yes…it really is more than just pushing the publish button on the intranet folks!
I think we need to share things like the IoIC Profession Map more widely, and not just amongst ourselves as internal communicators. Increasing their understanding of the depth of knowledge and skill required to be a successful internal communicator might mean our colleagues in other professional functions start to regard us as equals, and think twice about framing a request for help as ‘can you just comms this up’ or ‘sprinkle your magic comms dust on this’.
One practical thing that some of us can do (if we have any influence over the recruitment of internal communicators into our organisations) is to educate our colleagues in Human Resources about things like the IoIC Profession Map, membership of relevant professional bodies such as IoIC and CIPR, CPD and internal communication qualifications.
Getting some of these included as essential or desirable attributes in job role specifications for internal communicators might help to improve our status as a distinct profession inside organisations. It may also encourage more of us to do the right things to become IC Citizens and continuously invest in ourselves and others. Too many job specs currently make no mention of these things. The things which actually define people as real internal communicators who are a part of our profession and not just in it.
Being taken seriously
What do internal communicators need to do to be taken more seriously, so that colleagues and stakeholders realise that the litany of unintentional disrespect is simply an inappropriate way to ask for our help?
I think that this isn’t just about demonstrating what we can do, and the last-minute practical help we can give stakeholders in the pursuit of the elusive status of trusted advisor, it is also about explaining who we are as professionals.
Job titles are meaningless labels
If you have one, does your job title adequately reflect what you know, the experience you have and the qualifications you’ve achieved in the discipline of communications? Mine never have, but so often the judgements, decisions and opinions of others in organisations about what we are, know, do and should do, are shaped by these limiting labels.
Once you’ve successfully applied to work somewhere, the richness of your career history, what you know, the qualifications you’ve achieved and the things you’ve worked on (which you explained and demonstrated at length during the hiring process) are somehow lost, and you become defined inside the organisation by your new job title. It’s of no surprise to me that some places spend huge amounts of money buying in consultancy expertise, because they are ignorant of the existing skills and knowledge they already have in the organisation. In other words, they simply don’t know who they have working for them.
For me, it is the meaningless labels of job titles and the lack of understanding about my background and track record in communication which makes the litany of unintentional disrespect permissible behavior for stakeholders.
Let’s tell them ‘who’ we are
So, if they don’t know who we are, we need to tell them. Loud and clear. How you do that is up to you, but the opportunities to start that conversation present themselves to internal communicators everyday including the ‘Comms it up’ requests. We just need to have the confidence to do it.
I have a Comms Hero pin badge which I wear with pride on my lanyard. The other day I was in a meeting and the person sat next to me asked what it meant. It was an opportunity to explain who I am as a communicator, the voluntary work I do for the profession through CIPR Inside, and why I love working in internal communication. That person now knows and views me in an entirely different way, because they know who I am. They are also now unlikely to ever frame a request for my help as ‘Can you just comms this up’.
The other thing I do is add a post-nominal or two to my email signature. Not because I want to brag, but because I want people to see that I am more than the job title I’ve been given. If you have them, don’t be shy and wear your post-nominals with pride! Like me, you worked hard for them and they are probably some of the reasons you got hired in the first place. Share them, explain what they mean and who you are as a professional internal communicator.
Martin Flegg, BSc (Hons) Chart.PR Dip.CIPR FCIPR CIIC 😉