Wednesday, July 06, 2016

How to view your communications pro: At "the edge of inside"

If you work with a communications pro--a public affairs or public information person, a comms consultant, a speaker coach or speechwriter, a press officer--chances are good that their ways are at best foreign to you. We can tell, you know: every once in a while, when we're working with you on something that isn't public yet, you'll say something like, "Now, don't leak this," or "Don't go publishing this." Like that's something we would do. You see us working at the border between private and public, unreleased and well-known, and see it as a tightrope off of which you might fall. You're not quite sure about us. After all, we get along with reporters, don't we? Who are we really working for?

Having been in that situation many times in my career, both as an in-house communicator and as a consultant, I was delighted to see this article by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He called that precarious border on which your communications pro works "the edge of the inside." And while he didn't intend, necessarily, to describe comms pros, he does a good job at it anyway. Brooks borrows the concept from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, and I recommend it to you as a different way of looking at the communications professionals with whom you work. From the article:
A person at the edge of inside can see what's good about the group and what's good about rival groups. Rohr writes, "A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves."
If you can see your communications pro in this way, you're one step closer to my concept of don't get caught. If you include that professional in your thinking and planning long before you ever need or want to avoid publicity, and if you let them occupy the edge of inside with vigor, you'll have more careful, thoughtful, and effective communications.

What does that look like? You'll see it in a communications pro who says gently but firmly, as I used to do, "We're not that desperate for the publicity," when you suggest a tactic that will be more embarrassing than effective. She'll bring you information about stuff headed towards the fan, weeks before it hits, so you can do something about it. She'll point out what stinks about a situation and let you know whether that can be fixed; I used to say "I can make this look slightly less bad, but that's it." She'll let you know what reporters are saying, and when you really need to talk about that thing you don't want to talk about, for the good of the order. And she'll help you figure out how to do that, under a deadline and all sorts of pressure.

Many organizations, of course, don't do that at all. Here's what Brooks says that looks like, and why it's the wrong path right now, and maybe always:
When people are afraid or defensive, they have no tolerance for the person at the edge of inside. They want purity, rigid loyalty and lock step unity. But now more than ever we need people who have the courage to live on the edge of inside, who love their parties and organization so much that they can critique them like a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist that they live up to their truest selves.
Please share this, not with your communications pros, but with your colleagues who work with them. This is a smart approach to encourage throughout your organization. I'm grateful to Jan Sonneveld, senior speechwriter at the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science, for bringing Brooks's column to my attention, and pointing out its relevance to speechwriters and communicators.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by cliosguy)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.

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