Thursday, September 8, 2016

Five Failures of a Communicator

Communications is essentially a leadership discipline. Any individual who cannot communicate effectively will find it difficult to lead.

So, the task of the communicator is to support the leader to develop her/ his communication skills.
An effective communicator must understand her/ his leader, who is the leader talking to, what does the leader want to say, what matters to her/ his audience and what the audience wants to say to the leader. Very often, we tend to focus on the first two aspects. A communicator falls into the trap of putting what the leader wants to say at the centre whereas the audience falls in the periphery.

In the book ‘Power of Communication’, the author lays out the tenets of communication succinctly.

He defines communication as:
An act of will directed towards a living entity that reacts.

And what’s the purpose of communication: To build trust and loyalty towards the brand/ leader.
With this in mind, here are five communications ‘killers’.


This is precisely what happens when communicators lack clarity about the target audience, its preferences and its receptivity to the company’s messages. A journalist once told me – what’s a headline that needs to be explained. Spot-on. What’s a message that the audience has to crack its brains to understand. I agree that the audience isn’t always a homogeneous set but that is what makes the communicators role more strategic. In an era where business interests drive geopolitics, where heads of government openly bat for their home companies, can a communicator afford to take his eyes off various strata of audiences – from government to consumers. In a democracy, where consumer perception drives government thinking, can a B2B company say that consumers are not my audience?

It’s a communicators job to simplify and humanize the company’s seemingly complex product or service attributes. That would mean intense engagement with the business stakeholders, asking the right and sometimes “basic” questions as well as gathering and understanding customer/ target audience feedback.  Many a times, that would mean helping the spokesperson interpret the message in layman terms (eg. using analogies) without losing its impact. Of course, the communicator may face resistance. For instance, a leader may ask why he cannot be more direct and take the bull by the horns. In many cases, my response to such questions is that media, whether traditional or social media, is not the ideal platform to fight your battles. What will the audience gain from this battle? Are they even interested?

Sound understanding of the audience will help the communicator hold her/ his ground. A communicator should question everyday - How well do I understand my audience?


The best measure of a message is to replace the company’s name with that of its competitor. Does the message still hold true? If so, the communicator has failed to build the right proof points.
For communicators, messaging would be their raison d’etre. This is where communicators devote or ‘should devote’ a large part of their time. The rise of public relations came about because of the need for differentiation in a highly cluttered and fragmented market. As audiences evolve, flashy catch-phrases and celebrity endorsements are not good enough. Differentiation in messaging is core to brand positioning.

Also, we need to think how is my company being positioned in the larger narrative. If my arguments are not convincing, do I need to be in the narrative. Some communicators say that we cannot miss being in that story. My answer to that is what value have you added by being there. If you’re a tag along with the others, your spokesperson’s comment is simply a tick in the box for the journalist and for the audience, you are another one of the long list of me-too brands which they couldn’t care less about.

Communicators must make the message specific, contextual and structured to fit the audience, situation and purpose. Are we ready to make that effort or just getting the story out is good enough?

3.       MONOLOGUE

Because we’re shouting from the rooftop doesn’t mean that our audience is listening. Remember, we’re talking to a living entity that reacts. If there is no reaction, most probably, no-one is listening. Time to ask - Is the communication getting one-directional? A crucial metrics for success needs to be audience feedback, and more importantly “target audience” feedback. How many people shared your company/ leader’s comment? How many left comments and what were they saying? It's not a bad idea for most social media platforms to add a ‘boring’ tab for posts. That would be a more effective measure than the ‘like’ tab, at least for communicators.


In an insightful piece titled ‘As world becomes morevolatile & social, role of Communicator intensifies’ by Gary Sheffer,former GE CCO, he mentions how he misunderstood the CEO’s question on how to handle a possible crisis situation as how he would react to it whereas what the CEO was asking was whether he could address the cause so that the crisis wouldn’t occur in the first place. As communicators we tend to get into firefighting mode quite instinctively. Can we shift focus to helping prevent fires? Getting to the cause and addressing it beforehand is how the communicator wins the CEO’s trust. And we thought crystal ball gazing was only for wizards?   


Who wouldn’t like to be in front of the camera, giving bytes. The question is how many spokespersons are needed to talk on a subject to a finite set of media. Perhaps, the most crucial ability of a communicator is the ability to say ‘No’, with solid reason of course. The worst thing to happen to a company is to have every division/ function take the liberty to send out a message at whatever forum and in whichever way it deems fit. The chances of divergent messaging are high leading to confusion in the minds of the audience. So, what does this company actually stand for? Yes, a company can stand for many aspects depending on the audience set but the underlying positioning cannot be divergent. A communicator would do grave injustice to her/his role if she/he cannot ensure a coherent message across all business divisions and functions.

No-one said being a communicator is easy. More communicators fail, not because they are poor communicators but because they are poor leaders. A successful communicator must demonstrate the qualities of a leader, both internally and externally in order to command the respect that her/his role truly deserves.