Communication is About More Than the Delivery System

The discussion of communication at the annual
meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators this weekend
reminded me of my experience several years ago when I worked for the National
Council of Churches as the communications officer for Church World Service. I
learned very quickly that the concern within the Council in those days was not
to get communication out to people, it was to control
communication.

The discussion of communication at the annual meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators this weekend reminded me of my experience several years ago when I worked for the National Council of Churches as the communications officer for Church World Service. I learned very quickly that the concern within the Council in those days was not to get information out to people, it was to control communication.

On the day I was welcomed to the staff with a reception, General Secretary Claire Randall, in our first meeting, tapped me on the lapel and said, “You don’t release statements to the press. Those go through the NCC Information officer and he approves all copy. We try to balance releases here so that all the divisions get equal attention.”

The NCC in those days was more concerned about limiting communication to the outside world than it was concerned about communicating with the world. The results were predictable in some ways, and totally unpredictable in other ways.

For example, even during major natural disasters the information office looked at the apportioned number of releases and determined if Church World Service would be able to release information about floods, famines or hurricanes.

I recall being told that because we’d used up our allotment of releases in a month we couldn’t tell donors what we were doing to respond to a famine in Ethiopia or an earthquake in Italy. It was a control strategy designed to serve the needs of the organization (every division got an equal amount of attention). But it didn’t serve the needs of the audience.

And worse, it meant that CWS was invisible in some of the major crisis events in the world. The agency, in reality, was responsive and making a difference in the lives of people affected by disasters, but it was unable to tell this story.

This control mechanism might have worked well when the distribution system was based on a news cycle that was slower and more routine than the 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage today. But even then, it was simply bad strategy.

What happened was individual staff would leak information, make speeches to constituent groups or send advisories so that messages were tailored to the audience or the needs of an individual office. The central control function was subverted and multiple messages were delivered.

There was no focused proactive communications strategy for the whole organization because there were as many strategies as there were individuals providing information through informal channels.

It’s understandable that the NCC’s leaders wanted to manage information to best advantage. However, communication is about a relationship between the audience and sender. Ultimately, it has to be about an exchange, not simply about the delivery system.

The old NCC strategy did not take into account the needs of the audience, nor the demands of the media for immediacy and responsiveness. Invariably, the media moved the stories along, far ahead of the NCC’s ability to respond. Moreover, while NCC staff discussed which right word to use and how to compile a statement, someone else from another organization spoke to the media, got quoted and the story moved to the next phase.

Usually in those days that meant a couple of media savvy detractors of the NCC were first out of the gate framing stories to the disadvantage of the NCC. The NCC was mischaracterized and terribly misunderstood because this centralized control function blocked a coherent proactive communications strategy.

Fortunately, it is run by a leader who understands media today and the communications staff are much more savvy.

But the lessons I learned from those days remain helpful. Timeliness and proactive communication are critical. Those who aren’t timely get passed by. Those who don’t plan ahead for the contingencies fall behind and rarely catch up. Those who don’t speak to audience needs and relate to them don’t get a favorable hearing.

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