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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The 5 Nuts & Bolts of Operational Communication


Photo by Mark Evans via Flickr

A long time ago I had a boss who compared branding to the game of dominos. Also to a light switch. At the same time.
If you are into branding you know that it soaks into your mind. It's like trying to wash red Kool-Aid out of a white ceramic mug. Impossible.
So the boss was talking, and of course you are not going to disagree with your boss, unless they say something totally nuts or offensive. He said:
"Branding is like a light switch that goes off in your head. Until you get it, you don't get it."

Yep, yep, yep. Dilbert me. Absolutely.
"And then once that light switch goes off, it's like the dominos keep falling. You want everything to be branded, and everything to fall into place."

I did not really see my own rose-tinted glasses until a few months ago, when I changed positions to lead communications for a large, complex, technical and operationally focused division of a government agency. 

Here are 5 things I've learned:

1) Communication is a support function (!), not the center of the universe. You forget this when you work in public affairs, or in a branding consultancy, because you and your peers are constantly arguing over "what is a brand" or "will social media eclipse print?" First of all this means - learn the business because you probably already know enough technique. Second of all it means - do.not.bother.busy.people.

2) Writing still matters. Grammar counts. Consistency is valued. Templates are beloved. Clean, clear, crisp text is adored. It's nice that not every corner of the Earth has been replaced by texts, tweets and status updates. Concise is good but specificity is just as important.

3) Talking is not considered "communicating." (Yes I know it actually IS communicating, but this is about perception.) Do you want to improve the quality of face-to-face communication, group interaction, culture and meetings? Get a degree in organizational development. Become a consultant so that you can lead retreats.

4) Social media is largely beside the point.  If you are dazzled by all the gizmos and gadgetry associated with digital design you will be bored because operational people need practical skills. Project management. Process reengineering. Knowledge management. Collaboration sites. Portals. How to sort the wheat of information from the chaff that is most data. The production, organization, and retrieval of quality information. Believe it or not, it is an art form and it is hugely in demand.

5) Branding is only a byproduct. This last part is what really astonished me. Much of the conversation in the communication world has to do with persuasion. What's the right tool to create awareness, engagement, loyalty, conversion to purchase (or membership or voting), etc. Often the "what" (the substance) is buried beneath messaging to the point where the original meaning almost gets lost. This kind of talk, which most of us would recognize as brand communication, is 70-80% useless in an operational environment. There, the desire is for factual information conveyed just-in-time.

In an operational world, it's not that there is no connection between words and brand. However, the typical equation that we see nowadays is reversed: it's substance first, decoration later.

Sometimes the creative part can take precedence. On "Inside the Actors Studio," Johnny Depp said that when he used to write songs, he wrote the music first and the words later. On the same show Robert Downey, Jr. said that the '80s director John Hughes used to write the movie according to the soundtrack. (Look how well they've done.)

But in an operational environment, the soundtrack comes last. And that's the way it should be.