In a classic episode of ‘Yes Minister’ - is there another kind of episode (?) - Sir Humphrey is talking about the Minister and how he likes to panic; “Ministers need activity Bernard, it’s their substitute for achievement”.
This phenomena is not limited to Jim Hacker and Humphrey’s Whitehall. I have seen it so often in organisations in the public and private sectors. The need to be seen to do stuff - any stuff - as a mark of busyness or success.
It is often the lot of communications people to deal with such demands from their CEOs or Boards. How often I have heard people - often very senior and experienced people - say to their comms team 'I want us to host an event'. I want to send out a leaflet or flyer. I want us to be in the local paper every week. I want to send out a newsletter/eBulletin to our key contacts. The need is often expressed with such force, such certainty and urgency, that it starts to get immediately actioned. The seniority of these requestors - they are often instructing not requesting - helps get the ball moving quickly - with the comms team swinging into action.
The comms plan gets written, the draft materials start to get produced, designs are mocked-up, lists of attendees are put together, QA groups are established and other work is reprioritised to make room for this key new piece of work before anyone asks the question; what is the point?
What is the purpose? What are we hoping to achieve? Why are we doing this?
An old boss of mine used to often quote the mantra ‘form follows function, follows purpose'. In other words let’s be clear why we are doing something - what is its purpose/why does it exist- before we start designing and delivering. How often this simple rule of thumb is ignored, often with disastrous effects - loss of time, money, staff morale, the missing of other deadlines etc.
Where does this leave the comms team? Comms people walk a fine line between being seen as the nae-sayers who are barriers to change and progress and performing a vital challenge function in organisations to check that what is being done is linked to some overall business objective, the strategy of the organisation or the long term aspirations it has. But for it to succeed and be the best comms team it can be it must challenge.
This is not a pious post. I have not always done this or if I have I have accepted quickly that sometimes resistance is futile and delivered the said roadshow, letter, flyer etc but tried to do it with the minimum of impact on other stuff. I capture this discussion here to acknowledge one of the key roles that good comms people can play - it is never wrong to check that what is being done is necessary or whether there is a better way of doing it to achieve the stated purpose - assuming it has one.
The best leaders listen to the challenge and can have their minds changed. An example. 'I want to hold an event or series of events to engage (insert the name of a group of key stakeholders)' - it could be clients of a professional services business. If the purpose is to improve relationships or perceptions of the organisation than perhaps an event(s) is not the best way of doing it. It could be by making better, more targeted use of social media, hosting virtual/online events such as Twitter chats to discuss key issues/share ideas or just having more focused discussions with these key audiences, that the goal is delivered.
It is the role of the comms team to help find the best way of achieving the organisation's goals; of bringing together message, audience and tactics without assuming that an event (in this case) is the right answer. Challenging is a vital role to play but challenge with a focus on helping solve the problem not creating a new one. Constructive challenge with ideas and suggestions. Always rolling up the sleeves to get the job done.
I am yet to regret asking the question 'why are we doing this/what are we hoping to achieve?'. I always regret it when I don’t ask.