So, what's communication all about?

Recently an esteemed communications colleague in philanthropy retired and left for greener pastures. In his goodbye blog, he listed five lessons he learned on the job, and, as an aside, he mentioned that his daughter still doesn't really understand what he does for a living. It's been bothering me ever since. Whenever people ask me about my job, I hesitate in answering because it should be simple, but it invariably becomes complicated very quickly.  So, what is it all about?

In its most elementary state, communication is an exchange of information between people or groups of people. Communicators facilitate that exchange between people inside and outside the organization. On a daily basis, my job as a communications director involves keeping our staff up-to-date and engaged in achieving the organization's goals, through conversations, meetings, newsletters, and phone calls. I also serve as a nexus between the organization and the outside world, whether I'm working on our website content, our social media channels, press requests, or working on materials with partner organizations. I make sure we are consistent and unified when we speak about our work. This may sound easy, but in practice, it means negotiating with more than 50 people in 6 departments and ensuring we're all on the same page and in agreement.

According to the research

Some of you may know that I recently went back to grad school to study communication management. It's been a whirlwind of a year and I haven't been able to share much of what I've learned. However, one article in particular made an impression on me: The Strategic Communication Imperative (Argenti, Howell, & Beck, 2008). One of the key findings was that "the companies most likely to recognize the strategic communication imperative are those in which the CEO has an inherent understanding of how communication can be a differentiator for a business and thus can drive strategy." This is often the most difficult part of any communicator's job: does the boss buy into the importance of communications?

I'm fortunate, but, in most cases, I'm sad to say that the company's leader may be the biggest obstacle to helping align the group around common goals. S/he perceives communication as an add-on, often the last-minute-press-release generator. This is a recipe for disaster for all involved. Effective communications start during the decision making process. Ideally, the communicator can provide advice in the early stages of the project, and create a plan to enhance the project.  After all, these things take time. 

Back in the real world

In reality, communicators are brought in at the last minute to fix problems or work some of that good old communication magic. Your boss is the communicator in chief, your colleagues are members of the cabinet and their staffers, and your external stakeholders are like contractors and constituents. All of these perspectives need to be taken into account, and every communication needs to be tailored to its audience.

So, I guess I'm partly a tailor of messages, but also a conversationalist, a psychologist, a creative, and, above all, a careful listener, because communication is an exchange of information, not a monologue. In that spirit, how would you define communication?