Getting Beyond the Mars-Venus (Program/Communications) Divide


Guest Post:  Ben Rodriguez, program officer, Connecticut Health Foundation

I didn’t have to read Minna Jung’s recent guest post “Communicating in Philanthropy: the Hard Part” to know that there can be tension between program and communications staff. As a program officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation, I’m well aware that sometimes communications staff thinks “you don’t get it.”

But there’s another part of the story. Sometimes we think you don’t get it, either (with all due respect to my esteemed colleagues)! When I’m knee deep in planning an initiative to address, for example, children’s mental health, and then I’m asked to think about “what is tweet-able about this” or “why is this press-worthy?” it can feel distracting and disjointed with the long-term goals we’re trying to achieve.

And that’s where the tension can develop.

But I maintain that that tension is a necessary, healthy tension. From time to time, program and communications can creep back into our silos. We’re both thinking about how to achieve our goals from different perspectives – I from program, you from communications – the key is to come together to do that, and identify areas to complement each other’s work ahead of time, if possible.

What works for me is when I seek input from communications in developing initiatives. Inviting communications staff in early to think about audiences and messaging only strengthened the overall strategy of the initiatives. It also helps in identifying areas of cross-over up front.

Here are a few tidbits of what I feel helps the process:

Stop the Us vs. Them mentality. I wholeheartedly agree with what Susan Herr said in the comments to Minna’s piece. Ultimately, we need each other to achieve our organization’s mission! Let’s show each other the respect we deserve. Stating “program staff doesn’t get it” won’t win folks over. Instead, shifting the culture towards one of mutual respect works wonders. The way to do that is through understanding that we have mutual goals and different perspectives.

The tail doesn’t wag the dog. Ultimately, here at Connecticut Health Foundation, our initiatives exist for the purpose of creating health systems change. The initiatives are not for the purpose of sending out a press release or writing a blog, and nor are they for the purpose of us giving grants. But both of these are important pieces to the process. In pursuit of our goal, some of our activities will be program-focused, and others will be communications-focused. And that’s okay so long as the work is discussed ahead of time and is complementary, whenever possible.

The friction between grants and media timelines. Sometimes, grants are not “sexy” from a media perspective, but they are necessary for making change. And media timelines differ greatly from grant timelines in that the media is rapid and grants take time to make change. Sometimes the opportunities won’t match up perfectly.

Start working together as early on in the process as possible. The onus is on both of us to work together – if you as communications are thinking you should work with us, that’s a good sign. Where I’ve found success in working together with communications is involving you in the planning stages. That way, we can offer each other suggestions on where our work links, and offer constructive feedback. Roles are defined up front and areas of cross-over are better defined.

Ultimately, the Connecticut Health Foundation exists to achieve our mission of improving the health of the state’s residents. Pulling back to remember that, and seeing everyone as playing a role, can really bring us together.

It is also important to periodically revisit this topic because I certainly don’t think I have all the answers.

What would you add to this list? Do you agree that the tension between our departments is necessary and even healthy?


  1. […] Our own Program Officer, Ben Rodriguez, is a guest blogger for the Communications Network today with his post, “Getting Beyond the Mars-Venus (Program/Communications) Divide.” […]

  2. Patricia BakerPatricia Baker11-21-2011

    Ben captured it well. The issue is not to get lost in worthy activity but to construct a framework that embraces available tools to drive change.

  3. Minna JungMinna Jung11-21-2011

    Ben–great post, and, good points. I agree that the us v. them mentality is not helpful–but shifting the culture to one of mutual respect with a healthy tension isn’t always easy, either, especially when communications staff are expected to do it alone. It takes leadership at all levels to achieve the right balance between program, communications, and other functions as well (I don’t want to overlook my esteemed evaluation colleagues). And having glimpsed a fair number of foundations in my time, some have figured this out, and some are still struggling. The us. v. them dynamic isn’t something that many Network members are trying to perpetuate when they voice their concerns about program staff. It’s something that they’re trying to fight against, and change. But, to some of your other points, I have seen communications peers who act as if it IS all about the timely tweet or the blog at the expense of all else, including strategy, and in those cases I agree with you–we’re really not doing ourselves any favors. Anyway, thanks for posting–I think it’s been a good dialogue.

    • BenBen11-22-2011

      Minna, All good points. Every organization will have a different culture and different obstacles to achieve the right balance. In my experience culture change takes time and incremental progress.

  4. Emily CulbertsonEmily Culbertson11-22-2011

    Ben, Minna, Patricia: There likely are a number of ways that program and communications can work well and effectively together (including also research & evaluation, too!) that adopt the principes both Ben and Minna have outlined. I have only seen up close the model at my old employer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where communications, research, evaluation and program work in cross-functional program teams, where communications issues can be discussed in context of program strategy on a regular basis. It strikes me that when this model works well, it can’t be beat, but there are probably other models that may work, too. What they have in common is that communications is a partner with program early, and has the knowledge to make strategic recommendations, rather than always coming along at the end.

    Here’s where I ask a question that shows my lack of knowledge about other places: can some type of permanent cross-functional approach be piloted with one group in an organization, and tried for, say, a year, to give all parts of the organization time to work through the kinks and see successes together? For such a pilot to work, you need not only the staff, but the financial support for communications activities and support from leadership to see how it works out. But it’s hard for me to believe that program staff who benefit from a strong partnership with communications would ever want to go without it, and in turn would be effective advocates for it once they saw it in action. But at any rate, such a structure could be a “pilot” with the express purpose of learning what works and finding structures that might work for the whole org. (Success turns potentially into another problem, where everything is communications, but that’s a much different problem to deal with.)

    Thanks, Minna and Ben, for such a great discussion.

    • BenBen11-22-2011

      Emily, Great idea. As I posted in a previous reply, progress is incremental and trying new ideas to perpetuate learning certainly is the way to go in my book.

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