Is a Swiss army knife of communication still viable? Unpacking the communication tasks and human resources required by projects

DECI-4 Blog

Is a Swiss army knife of communication still viable? Unpacking the communication tasks and human resources required by projects

By:  Ricardo Ramírez & Wendy Quarry.

The origin of the ‘communication’ comes from the Latin, ‘to do together’ – simple enough. However nowadays communication means many things to different people, with varying assumptions about channels, media, audiences, the actual reasons to communicate, and the desired outcomes. In our December 2020 blog, we explored the notion that communication is more than a message.  We now turn our attention to the choices managers face to integrate different functions of communication.

Many projects and organizations struggle to accommodate the following tasks – which we order from the most obvious to the most strategic.

  • Front of house

The unavoidable website, social media and newsletter require upfront design work (often outsourced) and more critically, on-going maintenance.  Depending on the sophistication of each communication platform or product, the curating aspect works as well as the moderation role and both require subject matter expertise on the research topics.   Challenge 1: finding staff with the duality of skills; or delegating some of these tasks to others on the team.

“In the performing arts, front of house is the part of a performance venue that is open to the public. In theatres and live music venues, it consists of the auditorium and foyers, as opposed to the stage and backstage areas. In a theatre, the front of house manager is responsible for welcoming guests, refreshments, and making sure the auditorium is set out properly.” Wikipedia – accessed 5 Feb 2024.

  • Networking & fundraising

Projects and organizations live in an inter-connected environment where time and effort are invested on a daily basis to extract value from relationships.  This process requires familiarity with both the subject matter and the key actors driving the agendas.   Central to networking is fundraising and contacts.  The networker needs to be ready to respond in a timely manner when opportunities arise. It is common to find executive directors and CEOs who have the connections and credibility, but may not have the time to dedicate to follow-up when opportunities arise.  Challenge 2: very often, the job description for a ‘communication specialist’ includes a fund-raising role – and these are two different skillsets.

  • Relationship building & knowledge translation

A key function of communication is exchanging insights, generating new understanding through dialogue, translating knowledge, and building trust.  This activity is the purest type of communication, the most demanding and yet the most rewarding.  On the one hand, one can argue that the earlier two tasks are a required foundation to house this one:  a project or organization needs a brand to be recognized and referred to, its team needs to be connected and resourced. On the other hand, the success of many projects and organizations relies on nurturing trust as a way to co-generate new understanding and innovation. The most successful projects have an intuition about who needs what information, in what format, shared under what circumstances and when; a form of practical wisdom for knowledge translation.  Challenge 3: relationship building relies on the track record, recognition, and character of individuals leading organizations; you cannot hire staff to take on this role overnight. This task is often falls to the leader or CEO, and yet it also needs to be part of the wider team’s mandate.

Practical options

The reality, is that these three tasks interact and depend on each other, so what next?

The three tasks can be visualized in a Venn-diagram with three overlapping circles. The component tasks can be located within each one, with an eye to the overlaps.   While developing terms of reference for staff, this diagram can serve as a basis for defining required and desired skills sets. It may also help confirm or shape existing structures and systems that may need regular updating.

Purposes

Most organizations will find that all three of these functions are necessary.  But deciding which one takes priority depends a great deal on PURPOSE.  The ‘Front of the House’ approach is usually necessary, particularly at the start of a project or organization.  This process is a public relations purpose.  The purpose is to put the organization on the map. Offer up a website if people want to find out more and make use of social media to spread the word that this project or organization is the one you want to learn about.

This “Front of the House’ purpose is usually coupled with the initial networking and fundraising activities. We all need to keep our organizations alive; we design our communication initiatives to keep it in the headlights, to make ourselves known and to interact with others so we have outside support to show our funders that we are, indeed, important and have a following that derives value added from our work.

But then, there is the work that is the raison d’être of the organization itself.  The reason for its existence. If research is in place to understand, for example, why something like AI will affect decision-making; or the role of AI in university education, we want the findings of that research to be read and used so it can contribute to the dialogue on how to grapple with this reality.  This purpose is about generating new awareness, knowledge and making it relevant to audiences’ priorities.

We can’t rely on hoping that someone might happen to read a blog post or come across a website that will lead them to our findings (although this can happen but can’t be relied upon). This type of communication requires a more complicated process.  It means we first need to figure out how can we reach the audience which we want to benefit from the research, what they need, through what methods and media they are able to learn, and at what moment in time they will be able to pay attention.  Knowledge translation requires practical wisdom: knowing what to do, with whom, how, and under what circumstances; most often these situations are neither predictable nor repeatable.