Robert Capa, the Hungarian photographer and a co-founder of Magnum, famously said: “If your pictures aren’t strong enough, you’re not close enough.” The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the theory applies to those of us in the communications department just as much as it does to war photographers. Of course, we have the benefit that, unlike Mr Capa, our life is unlikely to end on a landmine if we get too close.
Communicators need to know the business they represent, the industry they inhabit and the key stakeholders inside and outside the business that can positively or negatively impact that business’ health and wellbeing. We also need to understand the business and the industry’s past and present, and have a nodding acquaintance with the future.
This insight is a task that can’t be delegated or passed up the line or outsourced to an agency. At it’s best, it stems from natural curiosity. That’s not to say that agencies shouldn’t have the same awareness of a client’s business, an industry’s challenges or its stakeholders’ views.
In another parallel with photojournalism, the intimacy of knowledge within the communications department should not be allowed to undermine it’s objectivity – we’ve all worked with senior executives who have an unshakable self-belief in their ability to spot a story that should make the front age of the Financial Times, usually featuring their profile picture.
If the journalist knows more than you, you’re on shaky ground; if the analyst has better insight, you’re at a significant disadvantage; and if the local MP knows about job losses at a regional facility before you do, you’re not doing your job.
The best communicators invest time to get on first name terms with every relevant issue. They consume the pages of the media they’d paid to manage and they’re forever asking questions of subject matter experts across the business. Genuine knowledge is what makes us trusted advisors and spokespeople. Knowledge makes us corporate assets.
Armed with knowledge, we debate the issues as a team and pull the pieces together into a coherent whole, to join the dots if you like. That’s when the team can start building a communications strategy. Building a strategy without insight is certain to generate activity that is highly unlikely to further the business’ objectives.
I’ve met and worked with communicators who see their role as administrators, there to transcribe the daily demands of senior managers. For these administrators, the details and the meaning are an inconvenience at best or a mystery in the very worst cases.
This brings me back to Robert Capa, because that should surely be the equivalent of stepping on a landmine for a career in communications?