Yesterday here I gently mocked former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron’s commencement address in which he exhorted fresh college grads to dedicate their fresh lives to religious, political, law enforcement, financial and educational institutions that are so badly sagging in a nation that needs them to be strong.
Gently, because he acknowledged that it was problematic to ask young people straight out of college to:
Choose your own institution. Make it more responsive. Make it more just. Make it more equitable. Make it more inclusive. Make it more creative. Make it better. Build it up.
For even if the childerns were interested in making such a boring beginning to their careers, they won’t be seasoned enough to know how to do this kind of work—and as a friend says, they’ll be ignored if they try.
You know who’s the only person who can improve institutions from the inside?
And in this first year of the rest of your communication career, are you doing this crucial and patriotic work, to the very best of your ability and using all of your hard-earned skill?
I read a really good article this week by Poynter Institute instructor Roy Peter Clark, who scolds journalists for accusing every colleague who leaves to work at a different type of institution of selling out. He thinks all communicators—or “Public Writers” as he dubs us—have useful work to do.
What if we changed the story? What if we imagined that the journalist, the mayor’s speechwriter, the grant writer for the public schools, the public information officer for the hospital, were actually members of the same tribe?
Let me give that tribe a name: Public Writers.
What do all public writers do? They gather important information. They check it out. They decide what is most important or interesting. They report it out. Along the way they tell compelling stories. They write purposefully for particular audiences.
Because the skills of journalists are widely valued, I have been asked to share writing tools with many non-journalism organizations. These include schools at every level of education. But they also include businesses, nonprofits, law firms and government agencies. The list includes the World Bank, Microsoft, Hilton, NOAA, Disney, IBM, HHS, AAA, the United Nations, just to name a few of the most prominent.
Never once did a workshop participant ask me: How can I hide stuff from journalists? Or how can I say this without really saying it? Or how can I divert blame from our company?
No, they asked me the same questions that trusty journalists ask: How can I tell better stories? How can I make harder facts easier to read? How can I make important things sound interesting?
As someone who has observed and instructed corporate communicators for 30 years, I can only say: Just so.
But I’m frustrated with my corporate communicator friends. None specifically, but all generally. I have a feeling they could be doing better, pushing harder, driving leaders to do what Baron asks, for the institutions they already work in.
I think corporate communicators (especially speechwriters and others who serve leaders directly) can contribute to everything Baron rightly hopes institutions will become—”more responsive … more just … more equitable … more inclusive .. more creative”—and more than that, too:
• More human, and humane. Helping leaders reveal more aspects of their own humanity, thus giving everyone else in the organization the nod that it’s OK to reveal more of theirs.
• Aggressively candid, taking employees and other stakeholders off a need-to-know basis, and telling them exactly as much about the marketplace, the organization’s performance and the financials as they care to hear—and more than they knew they wanted to hear!
• More articulate, using less jargon and more precise and even poetic language to make people understand the organization’s reality and social contribution in a more subtle and compelling way.
• More credible. More rigorously researched positions. The willingness to say, “This issue is important but beyond our ken at this time.” A public institutional memory that allows leaders to acknowledge changes in strategy or tactics or even just tone.
• More predictable. Good young speechwriters want to move people with every speech; wise older speechwriters know that often the purpose of the speech is to have the leader show up and say exactly what everyone expects to hear—as coherently as possible, and as expressively as possible—and in exactly the expected tone.
That’s called reassurance, and it’s one of the many things that young people—or as I call them, People Without Mortgages—do not yet understand the importance of.
But you do. You know all of the above. Because you’ve been a Public Writer for one, two, three, four decades now! And what’s more? Your CEO hasn’t. I was on a Zoom call the other day with a woman who advises CEOs directly, on communication and many other issues. I shared with her my theory that leadership communication people have all the skills they need to make a hugely influential difference in the way organizations face the world. But they have one set of skills they need to lose: The one that tells them they are communication helpers and not influential thinkers in the organization. “My intellectual blood bank,” as JFK called Ted Sorensen.
“Absolutely yes!” the CEO whisperer told me, confirming that on so many issues that have become so prominent in the last year and a half, CEOs are desperate for guidance, even for a strong hand. And they’re reaching outside the organization to get it.
Which of course is why I’m not frustrated with any of my Public Writer friends in particular, for not doing more with their skills; I have no idea the potential influence each has with the leader she or he serves. And I have a suspicion that many would have to switch jobs, to make a fresh start.
But as Marty Baron weakly told the college graduates, I strongly tell my mid-career Public Writer pals to bring their very best to bear on whatever institutions where they might have influence: “Do it in your church. Do it in a school. Or in a business. Or in a hospital. Or in government. Or for a charitable cause. Maybe even in journalism.”
I believe in you.