Australian Government,  Blog post,  Communications professional

Building respect in the communications profession

There is often a lack of respect or trust for communications professionals. Often our advice is dismissed or discounted as not as important as an economist, policy officer or project manager.

I have been asked more times than I can count if I can just “make it look pretty but don’t touch the words“. Implying I couldn’t possibly understand them or add value. I have also been told that my idea was “nice but not necessary”. When suggesting consultation with clients or stakeholders, I have been told there is “no time for that warm and fuzzy type of thing”.  Or my favourite, “I guess you will just do whatever you comms people do to get it out.”

I have been cut out, looked over, ignored and told that if I wanted to get anywhere in the public service, I would have to go back and get an MBA (Hello! I am terrible at maths. That’s why I am in comms).

Why does this happen?

I believe this happens because our profession is misunderstood. People think it’s all graphic design and hashtags (no disrespect to graphic designers or social media experts – I think what you do is an art form!). For those of us who do not have a creative bone in our body or started in comms when a press release was faxed out this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Often in government, you don’t get exposed to great communications professionals. Either because you only need to engage with them rarely, or the corporate team is so under-resourced, they don’t have time to give each team the love and attention they need.

What can we do about it?

As a starting point, we need to consider how we are perceived. I have written other blogs about developing great strategy and reporting on outcomes – this is not about that. Building respect is all about how you present yourself in meetings, how you position your advice and how you demonstrate your value to the organisation.

Don’t act dumb

Let’s be honest communications is a female-dominated profession, and there is a stereotype that women, especially younger women, are not as smart. This is hard to admit, but we probably don’t help with perception in communications.

I have seen my colleagues do it, and when I was younger I know I did it myself – act dumb to try to get people to explain a complex concept or a project in another way. Think about it, have you ever said:

  • “This might be a dumb question.”
  • “This is silly, but I just need you to …”
  • “I clearly don’t get it. Sorry, I’m being a bit dumb.”

If you do this (or any variation of this), stop doing it now! It’s not cute. It just makes you seem not as smart as you are. For some reason, women tend to do this more than men. Trying to be cute, sweet, less smart to win people over does not build respect. I’m calling it out. It doesn’t endear you to people, it makes them respect you a little less.

Don’t discount your advice

What you say is not any less important, valid or needed than any other person in the room. Often we reduce our advice, make it small. Have you ever used the phrase:

  • “A little thing not to forget”
  • “From a comms perspective, you might want to think about…”
  • “Just a small thing to note”

We bring a different perspective. We consider the external environment, what the audience needs or might think, how this would be received by stakeholders. We have the background on how the website is used, social media content is engaged with and what the Minister needs to get media coverage. Our advice is just as valid as the next person. So speak up, confidently.

Always be polite but firm

If you react badly when your advice is not taken, or you are overlooked in a meeting and have a tantrum about it, you will not gain respect. Instead, you will be pigeonholed as that “emotional comms person” (trust me, it happens).

If you feel like you haven’t been heard, politely reiterate your advice. Ask to speak to the Executive after the meeting. Change your approach and try again. Don’t just walk away if you really believe it’s important but also don’t have a public meltdown about it.

Call out bad behaviour

When others are rude, dismissive or aggressive towards you – politely call it out. Don’t just let it slide, stand up for yourself (or others).

In the same way, if you see someone in your team doing the behaviours above, or others, that diminish your respect, talk to them about it. Chances are they don’t even know they are doing it. Often they are so ingrained in how we speak and behave we don’t see it ourselves.

The key here is that you can’t do it alone. You need everyone in your team to agree that you want respect and that you are going to work together to get it. It means you can’t have one person continuing to play dumb. You can’t have one person who is rude and dismissive in meetings when they are ignored. You need help to identify when you do the behaviours yourself. One in all in – it’s a team effort.

What does it look like when you get there?

Finally, how will you know when you get there? You spend months and months working on changing the behaviours in your team, working to build respect for your craft. How do you know you succeeded? For me, there are three key signals you have made it:

  • You are invited to participate in meetings – people want to have you “at the table” to provide input and contribute. You stop having to fight for your spot.
  • Your advice is sought out – those little desk drop by’s “Just wanted to get your thoughts on this brief/project/idea before I send it up the line.” You know you have made it when your advice is being sought out early in a project (rather than the day before it goes public).
  • You get to be involved in interesting projects –  You will get to try out new ideas, be empowered to start new projects or get involved in ones the organisation is running. You will get to do the fun stuff rather than just the BAU. Word to the wise – this creates more work, not less, but it tends to be the more interesting stuff!

How long will it take?

In my career in communications, I have worked in organisations where there was very little respect for communications and in others where we were highly respected by the Executive and staff.

It is something that you have to work hard at, and a lot of the time, it feels like an uphill battle. It is something that will happen overnight. You need to chip away at it, one meeting at a time.

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