Communicating on behalf of institutions and their leaders is inherently fraught and often thankless work, even in the context of a healthy society.
We are not living in healthy society.
In fact, I can’t think of a time in my 32 years of observing the professional communication scene where communicators felt more discouraged in their work. Not day to day, perhaps, but in the long view.
They’re attempting to influence hearts and minds across an increasingly tribal landscape, where the most basic facts of existence are not universally agreed upon …
[is the climate cratering, or isn’t it? is the economy roaring, or stagnating? is Donald Trump a sociopathic liar or a courageous truth-teller?]
… on behalf of leaders of institutions that are wholly discredited by many of the constituents they seek to convince …
[woke CEOs, fascist university presidents, deep-state government officials]
… in reaction to protesters and opposing politicians and billionaire trolls who offer not even the pretense of goodwill.
Communicators find themselves bringing words to gunfights, and losing every day.
And they ask themselves: What are we achieving here?
This moment takes me back 30 years, to something I read that slapped me upside the head as a young writer who expected my words to reshape the world before I was through. It was my first mentor, Larry Ragan, who wrote (repeatedly, actually), that not every problem can be solved by communication, and that only a naive communicator thinks it can.
Some problems must be solved by organizing, coalition-building, or force. Others by turning the other cheek. Others by patiently waiting. And maybe some problems can’t be solved at all.
But many of the issues we have been trying to communicate our way through, over and around don’t seem like communication issues anymore. In such circumstances, the communicator’s job perhaps becomes a version of the serenity prayer: to accept the things communication can’t change, to change the things communication can affect … and to know the difference.
Recently a communicator friend in an industry caught in the crossfire of multiple culture wars said, “There’s only one response” to grandstanding, self-serving public critics, “and that’s ‘Screw you.’ It’s the only appropriate response, and it’s the only effective response.”
Or as General Anthony McAuliffe said when his 101st Airborne Division was surrounded in Bastogne in World War II and the German commander proposed “an honorable surrender”:
To the German Commander:
The American Commander
But once you’ve said “nuts” to your enemies, then what do you do? You dig in with your friends, and you seek new allies.
That’s the sort of work that communication can do, even if it seems more humble than the fondest dreams of happier times.
Times as recent as three years ago, when I came out with a hopefully titled book called, An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half. Of course any good communicator—like any good citizen—must continue to listen, and to try to understand.
But if you’re trying to use your communication chops to make a dent in things, maybe you focus on constituents who agree with you 33 percent of the time or more, and try to deepen your ties with them, and repair your rifts. You feel for the margins and when you find them, you go to work.
At the opening dinner to the next Annual Gathering of the Executive Communication Council this spring, I’m going to ask participants to answer two very serious questions: 1. What are the most ambitious aims you’ve ever shot for (or even privately harbored) as a professional communicator? 2. Based on the reality you’ve encountered during your career—long-term, or lately—what do you think is a reasonable aspiration, now?
Today, well ahead of that meeting, I’d like to put those questions to you, to get your thoughts on the matter.