empower your communications team to build horses, not camels

“A camel is a horse designed/planned by a committee”.

That phrase, of unknown authorship, became popular in 1950s and it still resonates. At its heart is the notion that group decision-making can hobble a project by incorporating too many conflicting opinions.

I am sure most will agree, that “design by committee” can be incredibly disempowering and removes objective rationale from decision-making, adding a level of partisanship that dilutes the result. i.e., I wanted a horse to get me from A to B, but instead, I got a Camelus dromedarius AKA camel.

Instead of a streamlined creature, you get this:
A Camel has a long-curved neck, deep-narrow chest, one tail and a hump. The hump is composed of fat bound together by fibrous tissue, acting as food storage in times of need. The height of a camel is between 6 feet to 9 feet. Weighs between 600 kg to 900 kg. Camels are herbivorous. Eyes are large, with a soft, doe-like expression and protected by a … and on we go.

We see this playing out in the communication space with a regular cadence. The phrase “it has gone for approval” is uttered, and then you wait.  Inevitably the work comes back with wholesale changes, on occasion, it is completely rewritten.

And that can deliver a piece of communication that is a shell of its former self. One which is loaded with multiple mixed messages with all nuances removed that address issues that are not consistent with the topic. And there’s more and much worse. All too often the piece has language that removes all emotion and delivers a monotone and unengaging tweet that would be better for the analytics if it was never posted.

This is the ongoing disempowerment of the communications function.

Luckily though, at least in the public communications space, the OECD Report on Public Communication has highlighted 5 key principles for effective public communications. The first of which is the need to empower the public communication function and allow the experts to deliver communication in the service of policy objectives.

Empowering the public communication function by setting appropriate mandates and developing strategies to guide the delivery of communication in the service of policy objectives and of the open government principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation; and separating it, to the extent possible, from political communication.

OECD Report on Public Communication – The Global Context and the Way Forward.

Communication empowerment does not happen overnight, or even at all in some cases. So where do we begin?
Trust. Trust in people, processes, systems and most importantly, trust in the strategy.

That’s easy to say, difficult to execute. So, let us break down the different elements of communication empowerment.

1. Clear Intent and linked strategy

Mandate, strategy, policy – call it by any name you like – an intent is required to begin enabling teams. What needs to get done, why should it be done, how should we go about doing it, and by when does it need to be done.

Laying the foundation of enablement through clarity on intent is fundamental to creating a communications team that can act responsibly, proactively and, vitally, with the understanding of what is required.

Coca-Cola, a world-class brand for over 100 years, demonstrates their enablement plan through their “liquid and linked” strategy. This, in my opinion, is the gold standard of communication enablement across both the public and private sectors. It empowers decisions through clear intent, leveraging principles that have been agreed upon and bought into by the whole organisation.

Absolute clarity on the intent of the team and elements of the strategy are fundamental in delivering empowerment. This is not just for the communications team, but the whole organisation. This segues into our next point…

2. trust and backing

Nothing kills a good tweet more than several layers of bureaucracy, opinions, and ongoing approval. I am a huge believer in process and workflow optimisation, but I am also convinced that the ability to react and engage swiftly with intent is what can make or break a message.

Imagine if Oreo’s “you can still dunk in the dark” Superbowl tweet had to be approved first, going through the normal process of layers of weighted opinion before it was edited. That left it with a logo made bigger, and some changes to the colour scheme because someone wanted ‘more of the cookie could be seen’. The power would have been back on and the big game done and dusted way before the content was syndicated. That would be a potential opportunity missed.

The power of this simple execution was that the intent was set up and the team delivering the communication as empowered to create and syndicate the content when it was most relevant, would have the most impact with the largest audience.

I have seen the opposite of this play out in public sector communication. Relevant stories in the news cycle and social media are often ignored while the “content plan” plays out irrespective of the real-world realities. Calling out certain “key events” outside of context and celebrating small achievements while parts of the world are on fire, are things that demonstrate strict adherence to protocol rather than enabled and engaged communication.

The importance of trusting the communications team to enable a good strategy through all available channels will not only remove the ongoing investment of senior leadership’s time but will also lead to better engagement, more meaningful messaging, and ongoing proactive communication for powerful outcomes.

3. agility in delivery

Following the previous two points, a communications team with intent and the support of senior leadership can be agile in content creation, curation, and delivery.

In 2001 the “Agile Manifesto” was created for software developers to uncover better ways of developing software. As with all good ideas, it was soon adapted and now looks to solve issues with iterative measures, reviews, and updated cycles at each step, rather than collectively delivering projects. It advocates for the use of data and an iterative approach to continuously optimise and deliver solution-focused content.

The short version: build, test, do what works, and don’t spam!!

Agile means having a high level of flexibility and the ability to react well to change. Agile strategies use a continuous cycle of measure-review-update. Taking measurements monitors real-time interactions and assesses the performance of content. It is not opinion based and is driven by internal overarching agenda.

Again, this only works with an empowered communications team, backed by leadership, and equipped with the relevant tools and resources.

The benefit though is a highly engaged communication team encouraged by the appetite for failure and empowered by the opportunity to deliver the right message, to the right person, at the right time, through the right channels, and to have the biggest impact.

A perfect example of this is Red Bull, they have even gone a step further to combine brand, agency, and production company into one. An example of content that “gives you wings” is a post captioned “wingsuit flying and pyramid sightseeing are just a match made in heaven aren’t they”

Delivering this and several other high adrenaline pieces of content daily demonstrates their ability to deliver content set to a mandate quickly and efficiently to deliver the message.

4. risk tolerance

Of course, to do all of this there needs to be a defined tolerance for risk. All organisations have risks, some more than others, particularly in the public sector. However, understanding the real risk behind creating a piece of content is essentially important in empowering a communications team.

Vanilla content is easy to approve. It ticks all the boxes and gets the work off the action list, but does it achieve the objective? Is the removal of all risks limiting the ability of public sector communications to be effective in spreading messages?

For a communications team to operate effectively, they need to understand the limitations of the playing field. What is in and out of bounds, so to speak. Setting these guardrails in place should allow for more creative thinking, dynamic content creation, and potentially more engagement with the content. Understanding the boundaries of participation as well as the freedom to push right up against them to test their limitations, plus the trust in the communications team as we have already mentioned, is likely to enhance communication rather than thwart it.

It would be refreshing to sit through a content conversation and get asked, how can we make this a bit “edgier” so that citizens would like to engage with it?

5. reliable systems and process

Trust in people is one thing, but if you can’t trust your process or systems, then, well… Houston, we have a problem!

A robust and reliable system is the bedrock on which digital communications are planned and delivered. Whether it be a single system or an ecosystem of connected platforms, it needs to work reliably to execute on empowering a communications team.

A broken system or process flow creates inward-facing problems limiting the communication team’s ability to focus on external communication and citizen engagement. Constantly looking to fix the system or work around the problem, eats into what could be time spent on strategy and thinking through the next big idea.

Trust in the team and the systems they use are incredibly important to empower communications.

6. feedback and reporting

Last on the list, but potentially much higher up in importance, is the need for an ongoing reporting cycle and feedback loop.

Bringing robust data back into the communications team to enhance strategic decision-making is vital to have a team operating at the highest level, with the highest level of confidence. It also allows for the completion of very simple tasks – justification of action based on real rather than assumed behaviour.

In her TEDx talk, Tricia Wang, explains through the lens of once mobile phone giant NOKIA, that without listening, the $122 billion big data industry actually means nothing. Qualitative, human-derived insights are vitally important to make the right business decisions and thrive in the unknown.

Supporting the communications team through robust reporting, ongoing feedback, and as much data as required, supplemented by humans looking at the data regularly to understand and predict trends empowers proactivity in the digital space.

Looking at the industry, the Australian Electoral Committee (AEC) has established the six principles that underpin the AEC’s approach to reputation management, communication planning and other activities delivered under the AEC Reputation Management Framework.

Source: https://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/files/electoral-integrity-reputation-management-strategy-2021.pdf

In doing so, they have enabled the autonomy required by the communications team. The guard rails are clear, the risk is noted and dealt with, the team has a reliable system to work with, active monitoring is called out as a principle and the team can engage in a meaningful and agile way. To dive deeper into this and the extended use of social media visit Propel’s new podcast “your digital reputation”, Ep#04: The AEC’s use of social media. The answer ‘What does reputation have to do with the Australian Electoral Commission’s use of social?’.

The true benefits of an empowered public sector communications team are yet to be realised. Hopefully, through the good work, the OECD is doing we will see more horses and fewer camels in future communication teams.

Credits:
Cover Image credits: Chungkong

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