Seen on LinkedIn last week: Jane Doe is chief communications officer at XYZ Solutions, but her title should really be chief dot connector, she says.
I have heard so many times in my 30-year comms-watching career that what communicators do is “connect the dots.” I have not the faintest idea what that means. But I do imagine the dots themselves have more job security. And I’ll tell you one thing: I’ve never heard anyone say about a communicator: “You know what ole Larry does around here? He connects them dots, is what he does! Larry goes on vacation for one week, and ain’t no tellin’ where them dots’ll get to!”
I love communicators, you know that. I’ve devoted much of my career to encouraging, supporting and promoting these folks. I wrote a book that attempted to teach the whole world what communicators know.
Communicators have hard jobs, and often frustrating careers. They want to do God’s work, but their best writing gets “pencil-fucked,” as one put it to me once. And their best-laid strategic plans often get waylaid by unforeseen events, and the conflicting priorities of folks far above their pay grade.
Maybe that’s why lots of communicators comfort themselves by saying grandiose and unrealistic things.
Two martinis in, a certain type of communicator will slurrily assert that the communication team is “the conscience of the corporation.” If that’s true, then communicators are usually about as effective as the conscience of Jeffrey Dahmer. And ignored for the same reason: When you’re ravenous for red meat, nobody likes a pipsqueak moralist pecking your ear about “stakeholder impact.”
Some communicators are always promoting bright notions like “radical transparency,” and “bringing your whole self to work.” And when the CEO calls on someone else, the communicator grumbles that the CEO doesn’t “get it.” (The feeling is mutual, I’m sure.)
And for all three decades I’ve been around this business—and for at least three decades before that (I’ve studied)—communicators have claimed they ought to have “a seat at the table.” I’ve known and do know many communicators who deserve to be included in any important policy palaver, because they’re reliably thoughtful, knowledgeable, insightful and politically adept. In short, they are helpful to the people who lead the company, and leaving them out of a big meeting seems like a dumb thing to do. Thing is, those people usually do have a seat at the table. But I’ve also known communicators who don’t deserve a seat on the Avis airport shuttle.
Worthy communicators understand that everyone in the company feels she or he has a conscience, and doesn’t need a furrow-browed former English major to provide one.
Sophisticated communicators know that running even the most well-meaning organization in a society as hairy as ours requires as much discretion as expression.
And self-aware communicators know that, without a degree in finance, engineering, business or law, it’s incumbent on them to prove that they have more to offer than common sense—or what my old man would call, “a magnificent grasp of the obvious.”
In short, communicators have to show they have a unique and indispensable perspective—a “rhetorical perspective,” as my friend Boe Workman put it in his speech to the PSA World Conference last month.
And unfortunately, having “communication” in their title doesn’t automatically make it so.
Communicators have to earn it one by one. And blustering, bloviating and blathering doesn’t get it done.
Tom Schmitz says
Thank you, David, for not illustrating your story with the example of the time that I — without the benefit of even one martini — pompously referred to our group of executive communicators as “a kind of priesthood.” I am equally grateful that you refrained from skewering me over it until we had adjourned the meeting to the bar down the street, at which point you proceeded to cock an incredulous eyebrow and guffaw, with no preamble, “… A PREISTHOOD?!?!”
I’m not sure such mercy was deserved, but I sure appreciated it.
David Murray says
Oh goodness, you have me laughing at the memory of that. Well, what the hell—we’d all been together in Communicator Church for two days … it’s easy to get carried away and start speaking in tongues.